Chaos at St Custards or Wakey! Wakey! BBC

20 July 2007 – All mass media products are constructions, ‘as any fule kno’ – in the words of Nigel Molesworth, the legendary public-schoolboy created by a BBC writer Geoffrey Willans just a few years before the current Director General Mark Thompson was born.

The reality that material produced under pressure of time, budgets and ratings is likely to be faulty appears to be news to Thompson. Interviewed on BBC Newsnight (18 July 2007) about sharp production practices that have again undermined public confidence in the Corporation, he declared that in all his years at the BBC he had never come across the sort of deviance for which he must now answer to his Trustees. Wide-eyed and chastened as if his blinkers had finally been dislodged, Thompson’s performance was disingenuous if brave.

He is a Corporation man through and through, and that may be part of the problem. His classic career-path – public school, Oxford University into the BBC at 22, then up through the ranks to the very top – was punctuated by a two-year sojourn at Channel 4. He may have learned the wrong lessons from his brief encounter with a slightly different version of public service broadcasting more exposed to commercial pressures.

Brought back in 2004 to calm down the convulsions that followed the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the Hutton Report, and his predecessor’s enforced resignation, Thompson supervised a shakedown to restore public trust in the Corporation’s output.

Swingeing staff cuts were accompanied by promises that those who survived would be retrained through investment in a new College of Journalism.

All the recent ‘errors’ have occurred since. While he was immersed in the Charter renewal process and the reconstruction of BBC governance, staff rose to the challenge of keeping its market share in the face of burgeoning competition.

Yet as recently as 10 July Thompson announced a five-year ‘revolution’ to further slim down the BBC and increase productivity by 2012. “If there is no market failure, you don’t need public service broadcasting,” he said. “Market failure in the supply of quality news and current affairs is growing.”

If he has not yet grasped that investment in journalism and programme production is what will secure the BBC’s future, it may be time for him to move on. Having witnessed 6,000 job cuts in the last three years, his staff are unlikely to take kindly to the threat of sanctions and sackings over this latest debacle.

Most will agree with Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists who says: “It is time to end the endemic casualisation which puts enormous pressure on individuals to deliver results rather than maintaining ethical standards. Staff shortages right across the industry are largely to blame: if you cut staff you are inevitably going to end up cutting corners. Broadcasters must move away from short-term contracts and recruit staff who are secure, properly trained and given the time and confidence to make programmes to the highest standards.”

Meanwhile Ofcom’s intervention in the latest affair should be the BBC’s greatest embarrassment, calling into question the Corporation’s system of self-regulation.

Sir Michael Lyons, who chairs the BBC Trust, has expressed irritation that the first internal investigation into sharp practice at the BBC failed to uncover the full extent of the problem. The Trustees may now appreciate the feelings of many members of the public who have complained about past errors in BBC programme production. They too are often given the run around, before something like the truth comes to light.

Last year MediaWise helped to reopen one case that had been dismissed after two years prevarication. It took almost a year for BBC lawyers to acknowledge serious faults. We are expected to take it on trust that the lessons learned make repetition unlikely, yet the staff directly involved have moved on.

The jury is no longer out on the BBC. The verdict is as clear as Nigel Molesworth’s view of his ‘alma mater’, St Custard’s: ‘Any skool is a bit of a shambles’.

That is a pity for all those license-fee payers who believe it should be the jewel in the crown of global broadcasting. The Corporation’s strength lies in its history and the public service broadcasting culture, but its weakness is a ‘we know best’ arrogance that comes from the same roots.

For coming clean about its shortcomings, the BBC’s Director General has been put on probation for a year in his very own Last Chance Saloon. He needs to think long and hard about how he and his colleagues interpret the notion of genuine public service.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise Trust

(Bulletin No 140)

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