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.



8 thoughts on “Renewing the BBC

  1. Great argument made for overhauling and saving the great institution that is the BBC.

    Let’s hope the hydra and it’s bosses listen and heed your advice

  2. As ever, there’s very little to disagree with here. But I worry that for all the commentary and analysis we’re not really dealing with a more fundamental problem. The BBC that served us so well for years is finished. I’m not sure how you can successfully “renew” any organisation that – long term – doesn’t have any real vision about how best to address its gradual decline. I’ve just listened to an incredulous Peter Snow on Radio 4 who seemed utterly bewildered at Eddie Mair’s question “Is Newsnight toast?” -well if that’s a ridiculous question, here’s another “Is the BBC toast?” Patten, of course, has it right about radical structural overhaul – but is anyone serious that this can be done from within? Who will have the chops to say – this what the BBC does best and (crucially) this is how we are going to fund it. Arguably you can’t begin to deal with the former until you have some ideas about the latter. What’s all the more perplexing is given the widespread agreement that the way the corportation is funded has to change – why there isn’t more open debate about what people want and might be willng to pay for if they are serious about the value they place on the BBC. Finally, on your point about leaving senior staff to edit well rather than manage badly, I’m not sure it is a choice between the two. Sure, it becomes more difficult when the structure around you seem to actively works against the thing that matter most – the programmes. The old cliche about great editors rarely make great managers, might have been true back in the day, but given the margins involved for most modern media outfits – it’s luxury few can afford.

  3. As a, hopefully, intelligent member of the public I believe that to mere mortals the BBC retains credibility and trust. The comment you make about an ever more critical government (shooting from the hip prematurely at all turns) and the need for 24 hour news plus Internet indiscretions makes a job in public service of any type almost impossible. The need to react at all times to change generated from outside leaves little time for creativity and clear thinking or decisions made for considered reasons. I hope that the BBC does not feel the need to respond to every criticism. It would be good to think that if the hype is not fed into into it might just die down and people quietly make appropriate and well considered decisions and get on with delivering the excellent service we have always received.

  4. Interesting piece … You say, “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.” Journalists focusing on investigating etc does not negate the multi-platform imperative it just means that other professionals work at it. Camera operators shooting, editors editing, web editors uploading content etc. ……

  5. A reply to Rupert Gardener: Yes. However, I think it is true that great editors do not necessarily make great managers and the converse is certainly true. If funds are so tight that an editor has to double up as a manager – neither of the two jobs will be done very well.

  6. Bravo! An impeccable analysis. Please make sure you send it to Lord Patten.
    I fear he won’t consult the people at the coalface who know exactly what’s wrong and also how to get it right, but never get the opportunity to say it to the people who can effect a change.
    The worst that could happen is that he gets rid of a group of headline names and replaces them with their managerial “offspring.” Worse still, he could appoint yet another layer of management to oversee the changes.
    He must be dissuade from yielding to both temptations.

  7. Great piece. The way too much journalism in the BBC became judged by criteria such as how many “platforms” it was shared on, or which big cheese came up with the idea in the first place, all painfully true!

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