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Ian Burrell: BBC says it will be spartan behind the scenes but the show will be epic


Roger Mosey, the head of the BBC's Olympics coverage, pulls on his metaphorical hair shirt as he sets out the conditions under which he will be working during the greatest sporting event ever seen in Britain.

"I can testify that both I and Mark Thompson [the director-general] and Barbara Slater [the head of BBC Sport] will have a small cramped open-plan desk in the middle of a big office," he tells me. "I was in the office on Monday and it is extremely packed, extremely lean and mean."

And as for those BBC colleagues who need a bed close to the stadium in order to be on duty for early morning broadcasts, there will be no complementary bathrobes or fluffy slippers. "We are putting people, generally speaking, in budget or student-type accommodation," Mosey proudly declares.

Endless press criticism of the supposed BBC gravy train means the organisation is – to an almost absurd degree – on the defensive on big broadcast occasions such as this. Only a short while ago it seemed that London 2012 was going to be a wondrous watershed moment when the extraordinary potential of the latest televisual technology was unveiled. The BBC must be careful not to take the romance out of what is a glorious opportunity for it to shine.

The NBC army of more than 2,700 staff – vastly outnumbering the BBC team of 765 – rolled into town last week, with its star presenters checking into the deco splendour of the Savoy hotel on the Strand. NBC will make no apology for pushing the boat out, after investing £1.4bn for the US rights to the London games and the previous Winter Olympics.

Last week the BBC was boasting that the studio from which Gary Lineker and other presenters will host its coverage was perched on top of a pile of old shipping containers in order to be "cost-effective".

Nobody would argue that the BBC should be spendthrift at a time when the organisation is cutting posts. But the corporation's Olympic budget has been carefully ring-fenced and the public narrative that things are being done on the cheap has potentially damaging consequences.

Britain is seeking to establish itself as a global technology hub, attracting start-up businesses from around the world and encouraging established media companies to base their European operations here. If conditions inside the international broadcasting centre at the Olympic Park are as austere as Mr Mosey suggests – and the BBC team is stationed alongside the technologically advanced South Koreans – then Britain could be missing a trick. We don't want 21,000 international journalists, many of them veterans of major sporting occasions, going home with grumbles about the spartan working environment they encountered in London.

When I put it to Mosey that some of the stories of BBC waste are agenda-led, he readily agrees. "It's bonkers," he says, citing false correlations between BBC staffing levels and the size of the Team GB squad. "There's no correlation because we have to cover Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and everybody as well."

In reality, the BBC is not shouldering as much work as many think, being one of a number of networks that contribute to the consortium known as the OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Services). Japanese television will cover the judo, while the Belgians will film the cycling. The BBC will take the lead on the football, the boxing and, sensibly, the tennis from Wimbledon. National broadcasters must deploy additional cameras to pick out their own competitors and layer it on to the neutral OBS footage.

Just how technologically ground -breaking will the Olympics coverage be? Mosey points out that the provision of 24 separate Olympic channels, available online and through the red button, represents a vast increase on the six that were offered for the Beijing games in 2008.

And if you really want to experience the future, head to London's Broadcasting House, or to Bradford or Glasgow, to witness screenings of Super Hi Vision television, which the BBC has brought in from Japan especially for the games. The resolution is 16 times greater than HDTV.

After the disappointment of the BBC's coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, Mosey promises that the Olympics coverage will not be an anti-climax.

The budget is there, but it's being spent on the viewing experience. "What we're not doing is putting in luxury carpets or daybeds and showers for BBC executives."