God's mysterious ways at the BBC

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The Independent Online
"People outside the BBC don't understand how the BBC works," smiles Eric Bosforth, who is Commissioner-General of the BBC. "And now, after all the changes that John Birt has made to the BBC, nobody inside the BBC understands how it works, either. That's good. It's moving us closer and closer to the truly enduring international organisations." Such as IBM or AT&T?

"Well, I was thinking more of the Catholic church," smiles Bosforth, whose official title at the BBC is Commissioner-General but who is known to most people as Vicar. "Jesus's message was very simple. That was bad. The Church turned it into a very complicated series of reorganisations which very few people understood. That is good. That is why it has survived so long. There is always a creative tension in the Catholic church between the simple message of Jesus and the tortuous thinking of the hierarchy. The same is true in the BBC."

With John Birt playing the part of the Pope? "Something like that," smiles the Vicar. "There is beginning to be a resemblance, don't you think?"

Bosforth smiles a lot. People at the top of the BBC do smile a lot. So do people at the top of the Catholic church. The two kinds of smile are quite similar. In fact, they are identical. It is the smile of someone who knows. Or at least of someone who wants you to think that he knows. And who knows that you don't know. It's the smile of the doctor who wants you to think he has arrived at a correct diagnosis. It is the smile of the bishop for his flock. It is also the smile of the half-witted person glimpsed in a crowded tube train, but that is by the by.

"What you have to remember is that when John Birt arrived at the BBC, we were in tremendous financial trouble," smiles Bosforth. "He had to make economies. Everyone agreed on that. So we started setting up committees to see who could best be spared. And these committees decided that the people who could best be spared were those people who were not on committees to decide who could best be spared. So the decision-makers targeted the programme-makers, technicians, people like that. And we started shedding people like that. We made economies. This was good."

But surely the BBC is now in debt again, so much so that there was a great purge of programmes earlier this year, and many programmes already commissioned were cancelled? Was that because you had shed the people who made programmes?

"What you have to remember," says the Vicar, with the beatific smile of a man who has no intention of answering the question, "is that to begin with John Birt was right. There was a lot of slack. There was fat that needed trimming. There was overmanning. So we made economies, and they were good economies. But once you get in the habit of slimming down, you think that slimming is good for slimming's sake. So it could be said that we shed too many people, and slimmed too far."

You mean, the BBC got a sort of corporate anorexia?

"You could call it that," smiles Bosforth, with the fixed grin of a man who doesn't like what you say but thinks you may be right. "We got into a situation where we had shed so many technicians and people that we ran short, and we found ourselves hiring the same people on a freelance basis, which of course was much more expensive. So many of the economies we had made turned into saving downturns."

Is "saving downturn" another way of saying that you lost more money?

"That's right!" says Bosforth, with the beaming smile of a vicar who has just learnt that the Church of England has lost millions of pounds through stupid investments, and that parishes are to be asked to help to make up the shortfall. "We lost more money! Instead of being in a better position we were in a worse position! Spot on!"

So what is the BBC going to do to restore its position?

"Well, we have finally located the core of the trouble. It's programmes. It's programmes that lose money. The making of programmes is not cost- effective." So you're going to cut out programmes altogether?

"That's a bit utopian, but we're certainly making it more difficult to make programmes," says the Vicar, with the seraphic smile of a child who has seen a vision. "It's getting harder and harder for producers to understand producer choice. It's getting harder and harder for them to book studios. It's getting harder and harder to get any decisions made, so naturally the flow of programmes is slowing down. And that's good, because it's all saving money. All you need, really, is one programme to stay market leader, like Pride and Prejudice or like our next big one, Mozart's Pupils."

Tomorrow: a look at 'Mozart's Pupils', the programme that the BBC hopes will save its bacon.

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