Leading article: This is not the revolution that the BBC needs

Wednesday 03 March 2010 01:00

Has the BBC juggernaut finally discovered a reverse gear? The corporation's director general, Mark Thompson, was doing his best to convince us so yesterday. A new strategy review proposes that the axe should fall on two of its digital radio channels – BBC 6 Music and the Asian Network – by the end of next year. And half of the sections on BBC online will apparently close by 2013 and the online spending by the corporation will come down by 25 per cent.

Yet peer into the detail of yesterday's document and the proposed economies begin to look rather more superficial. Several sections of the BBC website that are to be closed are already defunct. And there is an ominous promise to build up the "quality" of the corporation's local news websites.

This document also leaves the impression that such cuts as there are will come largely from programming budgets, rather than the BBC's notoriously bloated senior management. The corporation has long suffered from the inflated salaries of the private sector and the bureaucratic inertia of the public sector. As the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw (himself a former BBC journalist) complained last year, this is not a well led organisation. The BBC employs vast numbers of overpaid managers who do very little apart from make the lives of those who actually make programmes more difficult.

It is true that the BBC has imposed a salary freeze on senior staff and is planning an 18 per cent reduction in the headcount of senior management by 2013. But this does not go anywhere near far enough. A radical streamlining of the corporation's management structure is needed, not this token reform. There also needs to be a serious efficiency drive. The corporation's capacity for eye-popping waste was underlined last week with the revelation by the National Audit Office that the refurbishment of Broadcasting House has run over budget by £100m.

There has been talk of this latest spasm of housekeeping by the corporation being driven by a desire to stay on the right side of a hostile incoming Conservative government and to fend off attacks by the press baron, Rupert Murdoch. Yet the motivation is largely irrelevant. The BBC needs to draw in its horns for its own sake and for the good of the wider media environment. The manner in which the public consume media is undergoing a revolution. There has been a major shift to the internet. And the BBC's ever-expanding internet presence is doing real harm to commercial news and entertainment providers which are increasingly reliant on online advertising revenues. The corporation's push into magazine publishing, largely ignored in yesterday's report, has also been a scandal.

The BBC, at its best, is a tremendous cultural, community and educational asset for Britain. The corporation provides important services – from high quality arts programming, to excellent children's television – which the commercial media market would not supply. But the BBC needs to concentrate on what it does best and to tread much more carefully. Otherwise it will undermine its own legitimacy.

The empire building – both within and without the corporation – needs to come to an abrupt end. Yesterday's strategy document, for all its talk of "setting new boundaries", indicates that the BBC's leadership has yet to fully grasp the need for more modest horizons.

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