Ian Burrell: The BBC needs to produce some good news for licence-fee payers

Media Studies

At 11am tomorrow, the BBC director-general Tony Hall will step to the podium in the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House and attempt to change the mood music that has accompanied his first six months in post.

For someone who returned to the BBC amid such universal acclaim, garlanded by the staff and lauded by his many admirers in the arts establishment, Hall’s not had much of a start. What should have been his honeymoon period has been characterised by relentless rows over misspending and bullying. Broadcasting House has been anything but a scene of domestic bliss.

Tomorrow the DG will seek to bring the excitement back to the BBC’s relationship with its audience.

His message will be aimed not at the media commentators, nor the perpetual BBC critics in Westminster, such as Margaret Hodge of the Public Accounts Committee or John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons Culture committee.

Instead he will try to speak to the people who pay the licence fee. As well as being screened live to staff across the BBC, his speech will also be put online. And so, his language will have the public in mind as he tries to remind them how the BBC can make their lives better.

More than anything he will highlight the work done by the BBC’s engineers in developing the best in broadcasting technology. Hall was in California this summer, where he was relieved to hear from executives at companies such as Google and Apple that the iPlayer was unrivalled anywhere in the world as a video player. The modern public has an almost insatiable appetite for improvements in entertainment technology and now is the time for Hall to unveil what comes next. That will include evolution of the iPlayer radio.

After the uproar over executive pay offs and with the damage caused by the ongoing revelations of sex abuse and bullying inside the BBC, the new DG needs to give the licence fee-payers some good news. The iPlayer was claimed by the previous DG Mark Thompson and set in train by Greg Dyke, who also championed the portfolio of digital television and radio channels. John Birt, as DG, astutely recognised the potential of the internet and launched the BBC website. What can Tony Hall offer? His speech is important in trying to build an alternative narrative to the current story of scandal and waste before the tough negotiations start over the renewal of the BBC’s charter and setting the licence fee beyond 2016.

Because he will be trying to be persuading the public that the BBC is worth paying even more than the current £145.50 for, he will need to convince people that an improvement on the iPlayer will come with some better programming – which is what we all want from the organisation.

He will be tempted to talk of the plans the BBC has for next year in covering the centenary of the Great War, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Scottish Referendum. But the public knows about those events and will want to be told something new – so Hall has been leaning on his channel controllers and commissioners for details of their best upcoming programmes. To strengthen its position in the Charter Renewal talks, the BBC is desperate to flag up the fact that it will celebrate its own centenary in 2022 and that the founding values it was given by Lord Reith remain at its heart. I expect Hall to mention this anniversary.

What of the payoffs scandal? Tony Hall likes to present this as a “legacy issue”, just like the Savile fiasco and the haemorrhage of £100m in public money on a digital media archive project (known as DMI). These were all the failings of predecessor regimes under George Entwistle and Mark Thompson. Hall would be right to think that the public is primarily interested in the BBC’s content, and increasingly fascinated by its methods of technological delivery. But he would be quite wrong to think people aren’t greatly concerned by the waste uncovered in executive payoffs – arrogant complacency over that issue was a rare failing of Thompson’s. The real problem that Lord Hall has is that, no matter how good his oratory, his message will not be carried on a fair wind. That is because the BBC is guaranteed to be the subject of negative headlines in the months ahead.

An imminent report by the Public Accounts Committee is certain to excoriate both the BBC’s management and its governing BBC Trust over the flawed handling of payoffs. The accountants PWC (Pricewaterhouse Coopers) are set to reveal who knew what about the disastrous DMI project – which Hall has already acknowledged was a “failed idea”.

Later this month the DG will be summoned before Whittingdale’s committee of MPs in the company of Trust chairman Lord Patten for an all-encompassing interrogation that will inevitably demand whether the BBC’s management structure needs to be scrapped altogether.

The flagship Panorama programme is facing a complaint report over its controversial undercover investigation in North Korea. And in November, all the BBC channels will come under review for the first time since Thompson’s Delivering Quality First cuts programme began. The BBC Trust is known to have concerns over falling quality in some areas and whether the output is sufficiently distinctive from competitors.

Over to you Lord Hall.

The sorry story behind the ‘Mail on Sunday’ and Miliband

The Mail on Sunday was uncharacteristically sheepish on page 19 yesterday as it struck a conciliatory tone over the Ralph Miliband affair.

Following the distasteful traducing of the late father of the Labour leader by its sister paper the Daily Mail, the MoS was profoundly apologetic. “Like Ralph Miliband – I was a Marxist too,” confessed the paper’s right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens, as he firmly rejected the Daily Mail’s description of Miliband Senior as “The Man Who Hated Britain”.

If only the MoS had not already dragged itself into this shameful story by sending a reporter to a Miliband family memorial. In a piece printed beneath Hitchens’s memoir of his Leftist past yesterday, the MoS editor Geordie Greig said sorry to the Milibands for this “terrible lapse of judgment”.

To the outside world, the arrival at the memorial to Ed Miliband’s uncle of MoS reporter Jo Knowsley (who along with features editor Amy Iggulden has been suspended) seems an obvious attempt to further harass the Labour leader, as the Daily Mail remains unrepentant over its slurs against his father.

But that might not be the case. There is a belief that the Sunday paper was actually intending to produce a piece sympathetic to the Milibands. Greig is locked in a power struggle with Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre and is widely regarded as his successor in waiting. This was an opportunity for the Sunday editor to show a different side to Mail journalism while Dacre remained in attack mode. But however the message came down the editorial chain, the execution was bungled. Greig has said that Knowsley was sent out “without my knowledge”. He must be smarting. Nonetheless, in his mea culpa he has still made a point. Because while Dacre’s Daily Mail still faces Ed Miliband down, Greig has been prepared to say that his own paper’s incursion into a family’s private life was “completely contrary to the values and editorial standards of the Mail on Sunday”. For Paul Dacre, for whom the word “values” is everything, those words will have had an uncomfortable resonance.

Twitter: @iburrell

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