Birt's warrior fights for 'reality' as BBC mood turns sourer

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The Independent Online
THREE cameos from last week's BBC strike show how far staff-management relations have deteriorated throughout the corporation.

In a horrified aside, the Radio 1 presenter Chris Morris referred to 'two wildebeests, just charging into each other'. In the Radio 4 newsroom, a senior reporter exclaimed bitterly: '(Management) hate us - but they can't do without us]' And at Greater London Radio in Marylebone High Street, Margaret Salmon, the BBC's personnel director, and John Fray, a union official, would not be interviewed about the conflict in the same studio and left by separate exits.

The deterioration may now worsen. In a letter to all staff, Mrs Salmon wrote: 'We cannot allow the disruption of television and radio programmes to continue . . . (and) will have to review the position relating to staff who continue to work to rule or withdraw their labour.' Later, Tim Gardam, a head of programmes, told colleagues the crisis was 'shaping up into the worst in the BBC's history.'

If strikers are suspended or sacked, 'it will be the programme editors - not top management - who will be asked to do the hatchet jobs,' said a broadcaster.

'The prospect is preying on their minds. It will sour things for ever.' Within hours of these comments, the BBC unions called off a third strike, planned for today, following a call from the Labour Party. With final capitulation a distinct possibility, sourness has already settled in.

Mrs Salmon, hired three years ago from Burton's, is a power-dresser (hound's-tooth jackets, white shirts, single strand of pearls) who became the first woman member of the BBC board of management. She likes to address staff by their first names, but can be cool and monosyllabic with those she does not admire.

At the sound of her name, television technicians - some of whom are alleged to enjoy feather-bedding and such 'Byzantine practices' as 'raincoat allowances' for wet weather and 'soft-shoe allowances' for studios - grimace horribly.

She is said to be the closest confidante of John Birt, the director-general. The task with which he has charged the 46-year-old Yorkshirewoman is to drag the BBC out of Byzantium and into 'the real world' (her phrase).

Shortly after taking the job, she revealed that when seeking childminders for her three young daughters, she 'deliberately set out to find part-timers'. She also declared herself to be a 'dedicated proponent' of performance management systems, proposals for which the BBC management wishes to impose on its 21,000 staff.

Common in corporate America, performance-related pay is regarded with suspicion in British companies where steady salary increments and promotions prompted by length of service have long been traditional. But economic recession and lack of jobs are forcing the system's acceptance here. In the BBC, where profit-motive is anathema to many, it is especially unwelcome.

But the current dispute is about more than performance-related pay and associated changes. It is a late spasm in the revolution that has swept the communications industry since the Eighties, when Rupert Murdoch cowed Fleet Street and Margaret Thatcher subdued the unions. Since then, organisations such as Independent Television News have switched to performance-related pay and, more radical still, 'multi-skilling'.

Multi-skilling, according to an ITN journalist, is 'the real world of the future'. It eradicates job-demarcation, and will shortly enable an ITN journalist to write scripts, make graphics electronically, edit videotape and transmit the resulting item. 'Recently, a cameraman in Glasgow, who was filling in as a producer on a story, then filled in as the reporter on the death of Mark McManus (the star of Taggart). All his work appeared on the one news summary.'

The opportunities for manning cuts are obvious. Five years ago, ITN had 1,200 employees; today it has 600. 'All our staff are on annualised- hours contracts, which means there is no overtime system,' the ITN man said. 'More and more staff at a senior level are on what are called undefined- hours contracts which means you can be told to work whatever time the company wishes.

'There is a pay system in place which effectively has removed collective bargaining. There are three methods of payment. At the end of last year, everyone got a letter saying either you can can look forward to profit-related pay by May 1995, or, you've done very well and a one-off lump sum will be included in your next pay-cheque, or, you've done very well, so here's another 2 per cent or whatever. But the reality is that 75 per cent of the staff who are in trade unions got no increase at all. The job-for-life has ended across the whole of industry. Arguably the BBC is out of step.'

The 24-hour walkouts by members of the National Union of Journalists and Bectu, the technicians' union, have been supported by between 10,000 and 11,000. Some are nostalgic for the bosom of an 'Auntie' from a more benign past.

Few seem to have anticipated audience trends that may require different work methods. For example, may Ceefax become more popular than the main news and current affairs programmes? Later this year, the BBC-owned Ceefax and its rival Teletext will study the results of joint research into the growing appetite for this kind of news presentation.

'Forty per cent of householders are equipped for Ceefax and Teletext,' a BBC spokesman said. 'An ever higher proportion of viewers are interested in selecting their news that way.'

According to a Radio 4 journalist, the sudden militancy is less over performance-related pay than an attempt to 'give management a bloody nose for all the changes they have imposed so far' (the loss of 1,500 jobs last year, another 700 this year; and 'producer choice', the controversial system allowing producers to buy-in services from the open - and increasingly competitive - market).

'I do acknowledge a problem, however,' he said. 'Performance-related pay may enable somebody like me to get a pounds 500 bonus for three good reports on the trot, but how do you reward the person who went to a lot of trouble mixing and recording the package?'

An NUJ journalist vehemently dismissed performance-related pay as ''a discredited idea' and foresaw a longer-term threat: that workers employed under one set of conditions would be legally prevented from striking in support of colleagues with a different set of conditions. 'It's divide and rule,' he said.

The unions see Margaret Salmon as 'the instigator,' and sneer at her Burton's background. The NUJ man said: 'After the clear-out of Burton managers a few years ago, one of the new team, in an off-the-record comment to a colleague of mine, described the pay arrangements of the former managers as a story of astonishing greed. I find it very interesting that she can come here from a company with that sort of culture.'

(Photograph omitted)