The day when Auntie's own newspaper bit her in the leg

A special, critical edition of `Ariel', the BBC's staff magazine, has reached a far wider readership.
Click to follow
Some insight into staff morale at the BBC on its 75th anniversary is provided by the latest edition of the staff newspaper Ariel, produced this week by some fearless internal dissidents.

The tone is established on the front cover with a cartoon (left) by Ken Pyne, who mercilessly parodies the corporation's mandarins in Private Eye. The aggressive, questioning stance is sustained on all but the much- perused jobs pages.

The most critical comment is penned by Hugh Sykes, a veteran reporter for Radio 4's The World at One and PM, who argues that the main source of news for serious-minded people - radio current affairs - is being destroyed by diverting resources into 24-hour TV news for largely non- existent news junkies. Sykes writes: "I have a whole file at home marked `BBC slowly dying'. I wrote that on it more than five years ago. At the time I was slightly embarrassed by the melodrama of my own description. Now, it is not melodramatic. It is true..."

The special staff edition, Ariel Impact, was edited by Stephen Walker, a reporter on BBC Northern Ireland's weekly current affairs strand Spotlight, who complains that his attempts to be "thought-provoking, controversial and constructive" were stymied by the reluctance of many of his colleagues to stick their heads above the parapet.

"We had hoped staff and management would be relaxed about the idea of the special issue," he writes. "The BBC has a fine tradition of free speech and creativity and our workforce includes many talented, energetic and opinionated people. Sadly we discovered a reluctance ... to talk openly about the BBC. There appears to be a climate of fear across the corporation."

But Walker did get to interrogate the BBC's controversial director-general, John Birt, who conceded that "the battle is not quite yet won" on the people management front. He also accepted that internal communications needed to be improved.

"One of the reasons for this is cultural and historical," said Birt. "The BBC that I joined was a deeply political organisation, highly baronial, where information was held to the chest because information was power ... we are a long way past that, but you do not leave your past overnight."

Another criticism is that Ariel is too quick to accept management policy. The editor, Robin Reynolds, replies: "That is the criticism levelled at every staff newspaper by staff. But I don't know of any other organisation that would be so relaxed about giving over editorial control in this way."

This is the second year that a special staff edition of Ariel has been published. Staff grievances can also be aired on its letters page. That was where the recent controversy about the future of the BBC's archives first surfaced.

"If you allow your employees a platform on which to sound off about the way the BBC is being run, there is a danger their comments will be picked up by the national press," says Reynolds. "But the existence of such a forum signals that the BBC is an open organisation."

There is, of course, another explanation: BBC mandarins know that the BBC is staffed throughout by media-savvy people, including many top-notch journalists, who can go straight to the national press with their gripes and grievances.

Broadsheets and tabloids alike love to indulge in Beeb-bashing, and will guarantee anonymity to any whistle-blowers in Auntie's sprawling empire.