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October 23, 2007

The BBC - a communications failure: Richard D. North - author of Scrap the BBC! - asks, why are the BBC management so inept at communication?

Posted by Richard D. North

Why do the BBC management and Trust seem to learn their communication skills and accountability from the Communist Party of China or the Kremlin – or New Labour? This is the question raised by Richard D. North, the author of Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

You'd think the BBC would know a thing or two about talking to the nation. Come to that, you'd think that the BBC Trust could lead the way in showing how public accountability works. It's got that sort of mantra at the heart of its oh-so-contemporary remit. So it's weird to note how poorly Mark Thompson (director-general of the BBC) and Sir Michael Lyons (chairman of the BBC Trust) have handled the current round of cuts.

The proceedings reached high comedy this autumn when the over-paid star anchors for radio's Today programme and TV's Newsnight bickered over the merits of their rival mediums. Jana Bennett, BBC Vision director, opined:

It's not great to have people arguing in public.
Isn't that what the BBC expects everyone else to do? Isn't that what openness requires? Wasn't it time someone said something?

The trouble is, of course, that the BBC gives all the appearance of being run like China's Central Committee, or the Kremlin. Or Blair and Brown's New Labour Party.

In the presentation of the current trimming, the whole focus has been about the staff of the BBC, rather than the public. It's what one might call producer-capture: worrying about the staff of a public service, not the public. The deal had to be sold internally and the rest of us could go hang.

What we know about "Delivering Creative Future" - apart from its literally meaningless name - we know from speeches to internal and media people. Try the BBC's own web-site, and the best thing you'll find is Mark Thompson's speech to "a Westminster audience" in July this year. The Trust's site is fabulously hapless, as though there were severe Health and Safety issues surrounding frankness.

It is odd that there has been no serious attempt to include the public in the detailed plans for the changes, nor to tell licence fee payers about them. I don't mean that the management and Trust should have felt bound by consultation. But it would have been sensible to let some air in. The licence-fee payers should have been invited to chip in with their ha'porth. Then their arguments could have been corralled, rebutted point by point and ignored.

Instead, there has been a fait accompli, and it has been presented in the broadest terms. This allows the arguments of the special pleaders to sound far more attractive than they are.

Amazingly, one needs the skills of Kremlinologist to understand even the broad rationale of the BBC's case. This is that news and current affairs are delivered in a wasteful way and that young adult audiences need a strong online presence and a particular form of larkiness which has its home on BBC Three. Oh, and don't expect the BBC to regret the mega-salaries of Ross, Paxman, and the rest, or the fat-cat pay of upper management.

All those lines are defensible - but they needed a line-by-line defence.

Any commercial corporation worth its salt would have tackled its critics head-on. It fell to an ex-BBC Three man to tell Newsnight that BBC Three's £90-odd million represented pretty good value for its 12 million audience.

In response, it fell to Jeff Randall to say the thing which really matters. The BBC - in common with most broadcasters - is amazingly arrogant. It won't admit that the waste in news flows from bad judgments in the past. It won't, crucially, ever accept that it might have made a strategic error in ghettoising quality on BBC Four or yoof on BBC3 Three. (Instead it will keep all its channels and recycle material around them, which rather suggests that the channels don't actually have a worthwhile personality.)

One can see how the muddle might have arisen. The BBC Trust likes to insist it is about the big picture, and doesn't do detail. The Director General may believe that - granted he's got a shrinking budget - he has made the right decisions. Both may well believe that the ancient tension between a populist and elitist justification for the licence fee has been properly judged. (You might even defend the vulgarisation of everything in sight, including the current affairs and news sacred cows, on those grounds.)

The fact remains that both the BBC management and their supervisory Trust have cocked up in the explanation department. Maybe arrogance made them decide to bluff their way through the crisis on a "never apologise, never explain" basis. Maybe they feared losing detailed arguments and have steered clear of them. Maybe they were just so tin-eared that they didn't detect a public unease - and so felt free to obsess on union issues.

Whatever the explanation, the strong impression remains of a BBC boss class so grand that they think not shaving is sexy and that there is no need to get into the bear-pit of public debate. They all need better media training. A spell in a Corporate Social Responsibility seminar wouldn't hurt either. It would at least train into them an understanding that nowadays, one's management is done in a media goldfish bowl.

Richard D. North is the author of the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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Here are a couple of Robert’s theorems:

(1) “Management” generally cannot communicate;

(2) “Management” are generally not tuned to their organization’s business – university management tend not to be academic, hospital management tend not to be medically minded.

Bring the two together . . .

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 24, 2007 08:08 AM
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Well if the BBC's managers are unaccountable, what would you make of Oxfam's? Apparently Oxfam has taken the BBC's guidelines on conflict of interest word for word to develop their own. How very strange. There are some interseting parrallels between the parlous state of Oxfam today and the problems within the BBC. Both organisations have become too bloated, and have lost their sense of purpose.

Posted by: Andrew at November 6, 2007 09:08 PM
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