Category Archives: Media

Lessons from the Library

There are few things we British love more than to see one of our elite institutions with egg on its face.

So of course news that an Oxford college is at the centre of a “Harlem Shake Scandal” has made national headlines. (Full disclosure: it’s of more than passing interest to me as it concerns my old college).

But I made some inquiries, and the story’s not quite as it at first seems.

To recap: A group of students took over the library at St Hilda’s and recorded their version of the now rather passé meme doing the rounds on YouTube.

So far, so vaguely humourous. But then it emerged that not only had participating students been disciplined, the young library assistant on duty that night had lost her job.

“Dismissed”, “fired” – however it was reported, the punishment sounded harsh. Especially as the students insisted that the woman, Calypso Nash, had nothing to do with the stunt.

Cue furious demands for her immediate reinstatement. An online petition was followed by a motion passed by the undergraduate body, the JCR. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament.

I found it hard to believe. And sure enough, there were some key details missing from the coverage – which the College did nothing to clarify while the story was gathering steam. “Declined to comment” was the line most newspapers used.

Ms Nash was not a “librarian” and she was not on the staff. She’s a post-graduate student who was employed on a casual basis as a library invigilator.

After the Harlem Shake incident she was told she wouldn’t be offered any more shifts. A bit harsh perhaps but not quite the same as being “fired” from a job, and, though nothing’s been heard from her, I’m told she has not appealed.

If the college had said that at the beginning it might have defused the protest. I gather they’re about to make a statement to that effect.  Horses and stable doors come to mind…

It still leaves questions about the overall handling of the incident. No students were harmed in the making of that 30 second video and I doubt any degrees will be failed as a result.

It was recorded late in the evening, and in a spirit of fun.  It even had an admirable political message: a banner demanding freedom for the jailed Russian women from the band Pussy Riot.

The students could have been told to do a morning’s filing, or picking up litter or carrying books back to shelves. Something for their community as a way of the college authorities saying gently, “don’t do that again.”  As for Ms Nash, if the rest of her work in the library is okay then of course she should be offered more shifts.

The college should learn to be a little less po-faced and a little more communicative with the media, not to mention with its own student body.

And MPs lodging Early Day Motions should perhaps check their facts.

 

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.

 

 

Goodbye Bush House

Photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

 Long before globalisation, there was Bush House.

Home to the BBC World Service – grand in parts, beautiful in its own labyrinthine way, Bush House nurtured multiple languages and cultures for more than seventy years.

That is now over.

On Friday the last of the language services left for the purpose-built news centre in new Broadcasting House. Overnight, English current affairs programmes completed their move. When the final radio news bulletin goes out to the world on July the 12th, that’ll be it. The end of a broadcasting era – and possibly of much more too.

Of course, the BBC World Service goes on.  Animated Russians spill out of studios a few kilometres across town.  Indonesians smoke pungent clove cigarettes in Portland Place instead of the Strand.  They’re working out of a first class, brand new broadcasting centre so let’s put sentimentality about an old building aside.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

But Bush House was always much more than its marble-clad staircases, cluttered offices and art deco halls.  Even within the sometimes haughty circles of the far bigger domestic BBC (and certainly amongst its competitors) “Bush” was respected as an ethos as much as a place: the embodiment of thoughtful, outward looking journalism and a hub of international expertise.

Will that survive as the World Service moves in to new Broadcasting House with the rest of the London-based BBC?  If this were just a physical move, I’d give it more than a fighting chance.  But the emptying of Bush House coincides with the slashing of World Service budgets – and more. The Foreign Office, once its funder and protector, is casting the corporation’s international arm adrift, leaving it to sink or swim inside an embattled BBC that’s in no position to be generous.  

The changes were announced in late 2010 when the World Service was adapting to ever smaller budgets. Suddenly the new Conservative government demanded further savings – of 16%.  Five language services closed almost immediately. Radio broadcasts in seven others (including Russian and Chinese) stopped (they’re mostly online services now, there’s also Russian TV). Shortwave signals in six more were switched off.  The BBC’s only daily English language programme dedicated to European news disappeared.

Those were the headlines – and they were met with an outcry from Members of Parliament of various shades – but there were many other casualties: an editor here, a producer there. A researcher seat suddenly empty, fewer slots for original documentaries, more repeats. And, perhaps most ominous, the letting go of the experts. Off went the China, Russia and Central Asia specialists. The brilliant Arab analyst Magdi Abdelhadi left – right in the middle of the Arab Spring.  These were people you could call on at a minute’s notice to deliver live analysis on air. As a former presenter, I can’t count the number of times I leant on their insight and expertise. Their jobs no longer exist.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

There are of course still many people within the World Service with extraordinary knowledge and a real interest in the forgotten as well as the more commonly reported parts of the world. They are amongst the BBC’s greatest assets, the staff who lend authority and credibility to BBC news and current affairs. But for how much longer?

In that same spending review, the Foreign Office announced that from 2014 it would no longer fund the World Service through a grant-in-aid. It’ll be paid for through the television licence fee, just like any other part of the BBC.

Except of course it’s not like any other part of the BBC.  While up to two million people a week do listen to World Service English radio programmes in the UK, that’s not who the broadcasts are meant for. Everything World Service radio does is directed at its 180 million strong audiences abroad. When it comes to deciding whose needs and wants come first there’s no way the BBC bosses, answerable to the licence fee payer at home, can put the foreigners anywhere near the top of the list.

Promises have been made about budgets being protected. Affectionate lip service has been paid to the importance of the World Service. Even the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was responsible for the savage cuts (far bigger than in any other part of the foreign office budget) and the sudden funding change, thinks the World Service “should remain an articulate and powerful voice for Britain in the world, and a trusted provider of impartial and independent news.”

That’s good of him. I’m not sure how it’ll happen without real commitment from government, and from the top of the BBC. There must be a recognition that the Bush House ethos, even without Bush House, must be kept alive.  They could start by explaining to the British public why the World Service is worth paying for.  It is, after all Britian’s most successful export, one of the few institutions bar the Monarchy that provokes both affection and respect for this country overseas.

The World Service has lost resources and its much loved home; by 2014 it will have lost a quarter of its staff and its traditional source of funding.  Yes there will be benefits from working more closely with colleagues from other departments day to day. But there are also threats. You can’t blame the incredibly dedicated World Service staff for worrying that they are about to be swallowed up by the domestic-facing BBC.

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation” is the BBC’s motto. And so it shall.  But the respected voice of this nation is already getting fainter. With the closing of Bush House,  it’s going to need all the help it can get to be heard. 

 (You can see more of Bogdan’s pictures of Bush House on facebook or at www.frymorgen.com)