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BBC reforms 'a failure'

THE BBC is 'bust and bankrupt' and the free-market reforms initiated by controversial director-general John Birt are failing, according to senior corporation insiders.

Half way through the first year of the new system, around 320 of the 400-plus business units, covering every aspect of production from make-up to video editing, are running at a loss.

The concept of 'producer choice' initiated by the Birt regime, which separates staff into 'buyers' and 'sellers' in a BBC internal market modelled on the NHS, has proved a costly failure, say disillusioned line managers who cannot be named because of the corporation's strict confidentiality rules.

Further redundancies, on top of the 2,000 jobs lost during the last two years, are certain to follow the dismal financial performance. BBC managers have told the unions that 80 staff will be made redundant in Northern Ireland where the design department will close - even though there are no similar facilities in the private sector.

The costs of redundancy have proved astronomical. Most employees who lose their jobs leave with a year's pay. At the same time, the corporation has spent around pounds 10m on employment and management consultants.

But the biggest casualty of the debacle could be the credibility of Mr Birt himself in the crucial run-up to the 1996 deadline for renewal of the corporation's charter. A government White Paper on the issue is due in January, and BBC-watchers expect some aspects of broadcasting - most probably transmission - will be privatised.

Robin Corbett MP, Labour spokesman on broadcasting, said yesterday: 'This is the result of trying to turn the BBC into a bazaar. People are so burdened with counting coppers they have not noticed a large slice of the audience has left.'

A BBC spokesman denied that the financial performance was as bad as staff had disclosed. Around 10 per cent of the business units had budgeted for a deficit and the rest would 'come in on target.' Latest research, he added, shows that 94 per cent of the population tunes into BBC-tv every week.

Under the Birt reforms, the BBC's staff are divided into 8,500 producers (the buyers) who shop for studios, camera crews, archive material, theatrical make-up and other services among the other 14,500 staff (the sellers). They can also shop outside. Sellers have to do enough 'business' to justify their existence.

'Producer choice has manifestly failed,' argued Roger Bolton, national organiser of the broadcasting union Bectu. 'It has not delivered the extra pounds 100m for extra programmes that John Birt promised. It has certainly not delivered efficiency and savings to the BBC. Those responsible for introducing it must be answerable for their actions. After all, it is public money.

'Producer choice is out of control. Most of the business units are facing bankruptcy. Too much work has gone out of the BBC. You only have to walk around the studios to see that almost nothing is being made.

'I have even heard that some producers are being told to keep material 'in-house'. Things are going badly wrong. All our worst forecasts are coming true.'