Auntie needs some radical surgery

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

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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.

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