Renewing the BBC

At last, Lord Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has said it.  The BBC needs a “radical structural overhaul”.

What took him so long?

Most organisations struggle when budgets shrink – especially if demand stays the same (or in the case of some parts of the BBC, rises).  Job cuts breed insecurity. Insecurity breeds timidity. Heavier workloads take their toll on rigour.

At a BBC consumed by the process of managing change, the struggle has been particularly acute over the past decade or so.

Out went much of the Human Resources support for programme makers. Next it was the dedicated finance teams. “Money should be targeted at programmes, not back office functions” –  a splendid principle but one applied so widely that creativity has been swamped by basic admin in recent years.

Editors who once dealt in ideas and programme content now spend their days on contracts, rotas and budgets. Producers who used to pride themselves on teasing information out of sources and contributors now have to dedicate as much time to booking taxis and studio lines.

Regular programme reviews have gone. There are still meetings, dozens of them in every department every day. But very few are focused purely on generating original material or providing critical feedback.

Instead, the participants “liaise.”

BBC staff now talk to themselves – endlessly, and mostly about process. It’s one of the by-products of the big push towards multi-media or cross-platform working. That a feature for radio should be re-made for television and the web is an admirable resource-sharing notion (though it begs questions about the plurality of the BBC’s monolithic output).

But it has become a dangerous obsession at the BBC. So much so that whole new sections have sprung up to coordinate the output and discuss it with other planners.

One example: Recently, after I’d completed a radio documentary, I asked a planner if I should write it up as an article for BBC Online. Then I watched, astonished, as he got up from his seat, crossed the room and relayed my suggestion to an Online section editor. An email then arrived in my inbox reporting the results of the planner’s liaising back to me.

This is not a criticism of any individual. But the planners and coordinators need to be managed. The Hydra grows another head. Then the heads liaise.

Except of course they don’t share the juicy bits. The only thing worse than being scooped by a rival news organisation is having your story poached within the BBC.

That adds to the insecurity. So does the diffusion of accountability. “Audiences come first” staff are told repeatedly. They don’t though – not when there’s a salivating press (and not just the Murdoch papers), growing commercial pressures and a highly critical government to appease.

So the heads tend to focus upwards – on their bosses and what they want – rather than downwards, at the work itself. A programme is judged a success not by its content but by how many platforms it was broadcast on. It’s declared a triumph if the idea originated from above – even if all the staff know the show’s not up to scratch.

George Entwistle, for all that he is a decent man, was a product of a system in which process was everything and careers were built on performance at high-profile meetings.  I suspect the Editor in Chief stopped thinking like a journalist years ago.

So yes, a radical overhaul is needed. Re-arranging the deck chairs will not be enough this time.

Departments should be slimmed down. Out should go anyone not directly involved in getting programmes on air. Producers and reporters should do the liaising as a matter of course. That’s what the new offices at Broadcasting House are beautifully designed for.

If sections are to be smaller they are going to have to be better at what they do (and yes, there are staff who should go – a minority, but it has to be said). Journalists should be supported by highly efficient administrative operations so they can get on with their jobs.

The multi-platform imperative has to be re-thought. Journalists shouldn’t spend all their time re-packaging stories. They need to be out digging for the next ones.

Above all, senior staff must be free to edit well rather than manage badly – which is too often the case these days.

Fortunately, the BBC is still home to enough journalists who care hugely about what they do and who want to get it right. A radical overhaul should be aimed specifically at supporting and encouraging them. And if that means slaying some sacred cows (flag-ship programmes, presenters, under performing TV and radio channels – everything should be on the table) so be it.

From disaster comes opportunity: this is the moment to re-think the best news organisation in the world.