Janet-Street-Porter: The BBC is like the Titanic – going down fast

Editor at Large


When Mark Thompson steps down as director- general of the BBC after the Olympics, who should replace him and what should they earn? Will a fresh face and a more palatable salary convince politicians and viewers that the corporation is in tune with austerity Britain?

I adore the BBC, spent years there as a senior executive, and have presented many shows for the corporation. Once, Mark Thompson (then controller of BBC2) turned up to thank me as I completed walking from Edinburgh to the Greenwich Observatory for a series for him. He was at the finishing line with a bunch of flowers. Mark is a deeply moral person, passionately committed to his job. He expects others to have the same standards, but working at this elevated level blinds you to life in the real world. You speak a special BBC lingo; these high-flying jobs have ludicrous titles, and political correctness has to be observed at all costs.

The longer you work at the BBC, the more afflicted you are by this Willy Wonka mentality, a secret feeling of superiority, as if you are on a unique God-given mission to entertain and inform the masses. BBC lifers like arts supremo Alan Yentob and Helen Boaden, director of news, have never worked anywhere else. Mark worked only briefly at Channel 4. In any other industry a lack of market experience would be seen as a huge disadvantage. The BBC cossets, insulates and ultimately castrates those who stay there too long.

Chris Patten, the BBC Trust chairman, wants the top brass to earn less, mindful of how badly their inflated salaries and pensions play with the Government and other BBC staff, thousands of whom face redundancy. With the licence fee frozen, the BBC is driving through cuts of 20 per cent (£670m a year) by 2016, and channels such as BBC3 and BBC4 are set to lose almost 10 per cent of their budget. Radio 4 is protected, but its digital spin-off channel Radio 4 Extra will lose 17.2 per cent of its funding. Over half of BBC2's schedule will be repeats – hard to stomach from a broadcaster who developed the iPlayer so viewers can watch anything they missed.

Last week, Chris Patten attended one of the pompous pointless media conferences where bigwigs love to make self-important pronouncements (the Oxford Media Convention), letting it be known that he wants Mark Thompson to scale back his proposed cuts of £15m to local radio and current affairs, which could see up to 280 job losses. Patten says he wants "more specialist and local content" on the radio, and regional television current affairs protected. Has he ever seen my local news, Look North, in Yorkshire? It is appalling, presented by a weird-looking bunch of people with zero charisma. At 10.15 it regularly features just three items covering a huge part of the UK. In Kent, South East Today has an equally random pick-and-mix agenda that tries and fails to cover a region ranging from wealthy bits of East Sussex to poverty-stricken Sheppey.

Local television current affairs should be culled. Leave it to newspapers and online coverage. As for local radio – just because bands of people complain, it doesn't mean these stations have a meaningful audience. The BBC is still guilty of massive over-staffing in news and current affairs. Why do we have to have a completely different hourly news bulletin on Radio 3 from Radio 4? News is news. Local bulletins are necessary only twice a day in drivetime. The current local regions are so large as to be pointless. Community radio and television broadcast online and staffed by special interest groups is the only way forward. That way I can watch my council meetings on my laptop.

As for the chance to appoint a woman to the top of the BBC, it's irrelevant. We need more women in middle management, not planted at the top of the pyramid of power. For years now I've complained about the male dominance in flagship radio and television programmes. An increasing number of media analysts (and female MPs) have looked at hours of output, and found that, in spite of all the hand-wringing and equal opportunities guff, men still rule the airwaves. In radio, only 15 per cent of the DJs are women, and Radio 2 has no women with children above the lowly rank of assistant producer. In one edition of the Today programme on Radio 4 last year, there was one female contributor compared with 27 men over a two-hour period. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey wants to set up a meeting between Mark Thompson and the female MPs who complain of gender bias, but it will achieve little.

The BBC took ages to admit it got executive pay "a bit wrong"' (according to Caroline Thomson, the chief operating officer). Expect the same stonewalling over gender. What Patten can't understand is how to turn around the leaking Titanic that is the Beeb in 2012. The will for radical change doesn't exist – funny, when in the real world outside the BBC millions of people are losing their jobs at a stroke. Life is brutal and circumstances change without warning, but the BBC ploughs on in much the same way as it always has done.

Viewers moan about costly pointless trailers, yet we are still bombarded with the ruddy things for music and sport before the 10 o'clock news. Lack of women? They point to female executives, and their equalities unit. The head of BBC1 said there were "too many crime shows" – has anyone noticed any difference? The cuts are supposed to fund more programming. I question the quality of what is on offer, not the amount. Sherlock and Doctor Who might be popular, but hardly intellectual. Drama-lite, fast-moving twaddle with fancy gizmos and zero literary merit. Where's the challenging stuff? Why is it imported from Denmark?

Patten can change the top brass, but can he turn around the ship? A radical purge and the removal of at least half of its managers is essential, if the good ship BBC is not to sink under the weight of its own self-importance.

Polunin, Proietto and Putrov break the mould

The Three Tenors brought opera to an entirely new audience, using popular material performed in arenas, not concert halls. Can former Royal Ballet star Ivan Putrov do the same for ballet? His brilliant idea is an evening of spectacular dancing, Men in Motion. The biggest draw, after a tumultuous week in which he walked out of starring in the Royal Ballet's next production, was 21-year-old Sergei Polunin, in Narcisse, a spectacular tour de force that showed off his athleticism to perfection. Ivan Putrov is a lyrical performer, who, like Polunin, came to find the Royal Ballet too restricting. He is enchanting in a solo set to Gluck and in a new work, designed by Gary Hume, which he also choreographed. The show-stealer is the subtly hypnotic Daniel Proietto, in the beautiful AfterLife (Part One). The running order is a bit odd and the event needs to end on more of a high note, but it's a step in the right direction, and shows that classical ballet needn't focus around anorexic women in tutus. Ivan's concept can easily be expanded with other soloists and merits a wider audience. Polunin is ballet's next rock star.

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