Leading article: Auntie seems to have forgotten her public duties

Click to follow
No one has ever explained to the British people, who pay for the BBC, why they need a 24-hour news service which provides all BBC news programmes. This is a failure of management as well as of vision. Perhaps there is a case for a homogenous news operation, absorbing all the BBC's news journalists in a single night-and-day sub-empire, all on a single rota and under centralised control. Perhaps. But if there is a case for it, it has not been made. Neither to the BBC's staff, who admittedly have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, nor, more importantly, to the public. John Birt, the BBC director-general, once famously wrote of the mission to explain. It has turned out to be a more difficult crusade than he could ever have imagined. His great drive to transform BBC journalism, launched 10 years ago, was like the building of the Tower of Babel. It was an ambitious and inspiring vision, of a BBC that confidently seized its chance, as a public service broadcaster, to engage in a new kind of reporting. It would treat issues in greater depth, as part of a story about people's lives that made sense, rather than as an episodic series of sensations and conflicts. Specialists were recruited, units set up, new programmes launched. But the other part of the ambitious vision was that of a BBC run efficiently, a modern, tightly-managed organisation able to compete in the expanding media marketplace so that, as the licence fee came under pressure, the ideal (and finances) of public service broadcasting could be defended.

And that is the part of the vision which went horribly wrong, hampering construction of the new edifice in a babble of management jargon. Much good was achieved. Huge tracts of programme-making have been contracted out, and greater efficiency has been achieved at the bottom of what is left. But the corridors of Television Centre are still crowded with managers and bureaucrats. Meanwhile the commitment to a different kind of journalism is all but forgotten.

For all the Birtian revolution, the BBC remains a top-heavy organisation. It came as no surprise yesterday when Tony Hall, head of BBC News, retreated on the latest proposals by in effect promising another layer of managers. The point of the plan that has caused Naughtie, Humphrys, Ford and all to rise in revolt was to abolish the post of editor for each news programme. The primary justification was cost-cutting. It all sounds like the kind of plan that would be dreamt up by management consultants with no understanding of journalism. By yesterday morning Mr Hall had suggested "associate" editors for each programme, with "executive" editors above them as part of the central operation. This is a classic pattern in dysfunctional organisations, in which misdirected attempts to make them more efficient meet opposition and are then diverted into creating even less efficiency.

However, Mr Hall has retreated, and he should be allowed the credit for that. The BBC should be open to public debate about how it is run, and he deserves two cheers for postponing the plans for six weeks. Its celebrity presenters may not always be the best judge of the BBC's responsibility to the licence-payer, but on this occasion they are absolutely right that journalistic excellence is more likely to be fostered by loyalty to a small unit, such as a programme with its own identity, rather than some mega-bureaucracy such as the BBC.

But we can only guess the motives of the BBC's bosses, because it does not seem to have occurred to them that public debate was necessary or desirable. It would have been better if the BBC had attempted to answer the questions that are now being asked before announcing such dramatic changes. And it is no use the rest of us appealing now, after the horse has bolted, to the Board of Governors, the Great and Good part-timers who are supposed to act as the guardians of the public interest. As a public broadcaster, the BBC's own management should be conscious of their mission to explain themselves, all the time, to the licence-payers.

Nor is this the first time the corporation has been taken unawares by the public reaction to changes that it has announced without consultation. In the case of the proposed abolition of Yesterday in Parliament on Radio 4, it would not simply have been a matter of common sense to consult MPs beforehand, but a matter of public duty. The BBC is not like BSkyB, and it must take its civic obligations seriously.

The BBC has a responsibility to explain what it is up to, both to the public directly and through them to their representatives in the House of Commons. This is a responsibility that should not be shuffled off to the Board of Governors. It should be borne by the director-general himself.