Auntie needs some radical surgery

Forgive my cynicism, but a lot of what the BBC has announced is window dressing pure and simple

Share
Related Topics

Mark Thompson and Michael Grade have been in the two most powerful jobs at the BBC for only a short time, but already the "auntie effect" has taken its toll. As I sat listening to them set out the BBC's case for survival yesterday it was only too plain that a couple of weeks' residency at the top of broadcasting's most elephantine and convoluted pyramid of power is enough to render you a different man. These highly opinionated, astringent and normally forthright media honchos have been reduced to using the language so beloved by BBC lifers to kick off the corporation's case for survival.

Mark Thompson and Michael Grade have been in the two most powerful jobs at the BBC for only a short time, but already the "auntie effect" has taken its toll. As I sat listening to them set out the BBC's case for survival yesterday it was only too plain that a couple of weeks' residency at the top of broadcasting's most elephantine and convoluted pyramid of power is enough to render you a different man. These highly opinionated, astringent and normally forthright media honchos have been reduced to using the language so beloved by BBC lifers to kick off the corporation's case for survival.

Out came all the old chestnuts, terms such as accountability, value for money and most depressing of all, review. The BBC is like a woman in a constant state of menopause: life is just one long heavy period, or in this case, an on-going period of self-examination, crawling on both knees to their political masters in supplication and with both hands outstretched to the public for the licence fee.

The crisis in public perception, the fragile nature of the BBC's relationship with the government, coupled with an increasingly vociferous lobby determined to cut back or eliminate the licence fee, has meant that these two men have embarked on a journey to save the world's most famous broadcaster at a critical moment in its history. Both have worked inside and outside the BBC, and as a result must be only too aware of its endemic shortcomings, its insularity, its unwieldiness, its complacency, its endless self-promotion and the smugness that permeates every level of output.

Faced with the damning Hutton report, I had expected that the structure of the board of governors would be due for a rethink, with a plan to increase the calibre of its members and adequate pay to carry out the job of policing spending of £3 billion a year. Far from it: yesterday's proposals as outlined by Mr Grade had only one sentence in 135 pages about the kind of people who should take up this onerous task, suggesting that one of 12 governors should have journalistic experience, and nothing whatsoever about the selection process.

Instead, he proposes investing even more powers in these part-time "sensible" people, and, by separating them from the senior management of the BBC (a good idea, long overdue) and giving them their own governance unit, led by a senior figure with dedicated staff, ensuring they can act independently and impartially on behalf of licence fee payers.

Like much that what was said yesterday, this is fine in principle. My problem is that it introduces another layer of bureaucracy into an organisation for which the word "prune" is anathema. And, if, as Mr Grade suggests, the level of the licence fee could be removed from the political arena if it was determined by an independent body, why not the appointment of the governors? Anything would be better than the current system, under which governors are ratified by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Downing Street.

The proposal to set up reviews into the BBC's production and commercial interests, which involve outside experts and report directly to the governors, is another idea fine in principle. But the BBC has catastrophically failed to meet its 25 per cent quota of independent programmes year in and year out, and has one person within the corporation lost their job as a result? Of course not. Here we have the idiocy of target-setting in all its mindless madness. Not one head of independent commissioning in radio or television at the BBC has ever had a pay cut because they failed to do the job we are paying them to carry out.

Now the governors are to draw up "service licences" for every BBC channel and service, setting budgets, remit and performance targets. Again, pretty sensible, but there are two concerns. One is that the governors are not experienced enough in broadcasting, let alone journalism, to come up with licences that are anything but anodyne (a bit like the annual report). Even if these contracts for BBC1 and Radio 4 are great pieces of intent, can anyone assure us that if targets are missed, heads will roll?

Applying public value tests to all new proposed services also sounds like a lot of money going in the direction of research, as does commissioning a survey of 10,000 people every three years or so to find out if they think the BBC is value for money. The dead hand of the management consultant still lives on at Broadcasting House.

Far too much emphasis was put yesterday on "reach" and "accessibility", as part of this desire to provide better value, mainly by setting out a strategy to ensure that as many people as possible can receive digital radio and television by 2012. Again, all eminently sensible. But what is the BBC going to stop doing in order to fund this roll-out? Apart from mentioning that some of the on-line services had failed the test and were to be closed, no great desire to retrench or slim down was evident in all the high-minded waffle to which we were treated.

Now the BBC plans to launch a creative archive, with free content for all, and even more local television news for up to 60 cities, as well as more media villages and digital learning buses. More current affairs, especially for "hard to reach" audiences, is planned. (By the way, can someone please tell me who these elusive people are, as news is now available constantly via the telephone, the radio, television and in print? Has no one considered the heretical concept there might actually be an audience who don't want news as a matter of choice?)

Choice is the current buzz word, and of course the BBC has jumped on the bandwagon with masses of choice in all departments. As I left the building I was asked if I would be interviewed by BBC Online, the BBC Six O'Clock News and several of the BBC radio channels. Do we really need that much choice in news?

While most of us think the BBC does a pretty good job, and feel mildly supportive towards it, the only way the corporation is going to retain the licence fee in the current political climate is by contemplating some radical surgery, and not a lot of that was in evidence yesterday. Instead Auntie is still trying to please everyone, from the cradle to the grave. Most of us would be delirious if the BBC could promise us that fewer people and fewer managers would be in their employment by this time next year, and are unconcerned about whether the staff are based in Manchester or on Mars.

As a BBC executive in the early nineties, I was part of John Birt's big plan for the regions when my department, entertainment features, was banished to the North. Two years later it had all fizzled out, having cost much in staff turnover and removal costs.

So, forgive my cynicism, but a lot of what has been announced is window-dressing, pure and simple. My advice to Mark and Michael is: just carry on making excellent programmes, but get Auntie on a serious diet and cut out the consultants, because they are bad for her health.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

General Cover Teacher - Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Qualified Teachers needed for Supply in t...

Reception Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking to...

Science Teacher (Tue and Fri)

£100 - £150 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Part tim...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - Lewes / Brighton

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Day In a Page

Read Next
High and mighty: Edinburgh Castle and city skyline  

i Editor's Letter: We're coming to Edinburgh

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Members of the community farming group at work in their community fields near the town of Masi Manimba, Bandundu Province, DRC.  

The five biggest myths surrounding overseas aid

Billy Hill
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?