As I Please – BBC, TSB & Abramovitch

Why not sell off the BBC?

In an earlier Holdenforth blog I looked at the case to privatise the BBC and I found the case to be compelling. It was and remains evident that the commendable standards laid down and operated by John Reith almost a century ago have long been abandoned. What we have now is overwhelmingly a part of the show business sector, but with none of the virtues of that sector and an unfortunate collection of weaknesses that are unique to the BBC.

I noted in my previous blog the catalogue of failures by the senior management of the BBC coupled with an unfortunate practice of recruiting its senior management from the Arthur Daley Business School.

These failures included the continued employment of Andrew Marr and Alan Yentob, despite the former having been flushed out for taking out an all-purpose injunction which forbade any reference to his not particularly interesting extra marital activities, and the latter for his questionable behaviour in and on behalf of the Kids Club Charity.

The initial handling by the BBC of the rumpus triggered when it dawned on some household names of the female persuasion that they were not receiving the same rewards as their male counterparts was unfortunate and inept as were the embarrassing attempts by the affluent male celebrities to accept pay cuts.

What has happened in recent weeks?

In no special order:

  1. The gender pay gap row at the top of the BBC rumbled on with the fiery furious female paupers masquerading as 21st century Tolpuddle Martyrs.

It was reported that that the Radio 4 presenter, Sarah Montague, was incandescent with rage when she became aware of the admittedly substantial earnings gap between herself and her male colleagues for doing what appeared to be the same job. It was this and similar examples that led Mrs May to put her weight behind the campaign to eradicate the gender pay gap.

The gap was undoubtedly there but I found myself unable to share the indignation of Mrs May in the context of the BBC.

Why so?

As the gender pay gap was hitting the headlines another and rather more serious and annoying pay gap was also in the news. It was reported that Sir Martin “Shortie” Sorrell, the boss of WPP, not content with his annual reward package of £50 million, had been using his initiative to charge a few items to his employer that ought to have paid for out of his own pocket. The resulting fuss was said to have been a contributory factor in his removal from office.

What’s my point? It is simply that the pay gap between Sir Martin at the top and the millions at the bottom on zero hours contracts is a problem that Mrs May ought to have considered before joining the more fashionable campaign for gender pay equality. After all there is no gender pay gap at the far more populous bottom of the pay league since both males and females are having to get by on next to nothing. The ones who are not Mrs May’s JAMs (the Just About Managing) but sadly the NoMans (The Not Managing) those whose descent into poverty proceeds remorselessly under Mrs May’s leadership.

Before I move on – what does it say about the perceptiveness of Sarah Montague that, on her own admission, she was unaware of what going in her own office. For me the most absurd episode occurred when Sarah Montague expressed her fury when she first grasped the size of the pay gap between herself and the super earners (all male) on the Today programme.

If she had been unaware of the gap – and I am happy to give her the benefit of the doubt on the matter – if she did not know what going on in the very office in which she worked – what does that tell us about her understanding of the wider world?

  1. Stars and their tax schemes

An article in the Daily Mail on April 20, 2018 informed us that “Some 200 BBC presenters are being investigated by HMRC after declaring themselves self-employed, meaning they were paid as contactors rather than staff… They worked through PSCs (personal service companies) which meant they enjoyed some tax relief while the BBC allegedly saved vast sums in national insurance contributions.”

The story has a sad ending: “In recent months scores of presenters have been told they owe thousands in unpaid historic tax despite staff saying they set up PSCs on the advice of their employers.”

To this outsider the story seems to be the familiar one of how those at the top collude to pay the minimum to HMRC and then arrange a sharing of the tax avoided / evaded between the two parties. A sound arrangement in the good undetected times but not much fun when the tax authorities get wise to the scam and set the hounds chasing the alleged miscreants.

  1. The BBC part in the police raid on the house of Sir Cliff Richard

The BBC is currently having a tricky time in court as it seeks to justify how it colluded with South Yorkshire police when the latter carried out a search of the home of Sir Cliff Richard following an accusation of sexual misconduct by – you tell me.

It is important to note that at no stage in the painfully protracted proceedings was Sir Cliff charged.

The South Yorkshire Police Authority has already acknowledged its serious errors in its handling of the allegations and compensated Sir Cliff accordingly. (By the way – who exactly foots the bill for the compensation that was paid by the police to Sir Cliff? And who will foot the bill if the court decides in favour of Sir Cliff in the current proceedings.)

As I write the prospects are not looking promising for the BBC.

I know what I hope the outcome will be – substantial damages for Sir Cliff plus a bollocking of the BBC by the bench.

Watch this space.

Let us now proceed from the particular to the general

Should the BBC be allowed to continue to strut around wearing the mantle of John Reith – a pampered Sui Generis in the media sector,

Or

Should it be sold off to the highest bidder and required to sink or swim in the private sector?

I believe that the case for the latter policy grows stronger by the day.

Is the BBC broadly true to its Reithian principles or is it committed to the mission statement that “there’s no business like show business”, as exemplified by the very title of “The Andrew Marr Show.?”

Holdenforth believes in providing proposals to cure the problems under discussion.

How to proceed? Here is how.

Solve the pay gap at the BBC – and most of the other ills that beset the BBC – by the simple expedient of privatising it, possibly via eBay.

Very soon after privatization, the celebrities passing themselves off as national treasures would grasp just what is meant by operating in a competitive environment. I suspect that a tiny minority might still be able to command high reward packages but that far more would learn from their agents that times are hard, that belts have to be tightened, that jobs are scarce, that the good old days are over, and what did you say your name is?

Mr Rupert Murdoch was understood to have been unimpressed by the performance of the editor of the Sunday Times during the fiasco of the purchase by Murdoch of the forged Hitler diaries. Accordingly, as Robert Harris told us in Selling Hitler, “In June1983, after discussions with Mr Rupert Murdoch it was announced that he (Frank Giles) was to retire prematurely as editor and assume the honorific title of editor emeritus… Giles asked what the title meant. ‘Its Latin, Frank,’  Murdoch is said to have replied. ‘The “e” means you’re out, and the “meritus” means you deserve it.’”

I imagine that Mr Murdoch – or someone – or anyone – of like mind would speedily bring realism to the running of the BBC.

One last point – God forbid that it be should be thought that I am a born again Thatcherite anxious to eradicate the entire public sector. To illustrate that this is not so: why not use the funds made available by the sale of the BBC to buy out the shareholders of the privatised rail sector?

The TSB Fiasco

A recent (May 21) article in the Mail noted that as a result of its recent online chaos, TSB “could face £16m in fines for its IT fiasco”.

Two points to note:

Firstly, who will pay the fines if and when they are imposed?

Secondly, the Mail reported that Mr Paul Pester, the insouciant boss man at TSB “is giving up a bonus of £2 million related to switching to the new computer system. But TSB could still pay him a separate annual bonus for 2018 of more than £1 million.” Surely the sentence should have read: “Mr Pester will be handed his P45 and told to clear his desk just as soon as the blank P45 can be filled in.

Only when I am reliably informed that this has been done to Pester and similar bunglers will I believe that the powers that be are serious about tackling the national problem of ineptitude at the highest levels of management.

Abramovitch and Windrush scandal – is there a connection?

It has been reported that the Russian Oligarch, Mr Roman Abramovitch, is experiencing problems in returning to the UK following his recent extensive business trips away from these shores. His entry visa had expired and the relevant authorities have been tardy for whatever reason(s) in supplying a new one.

The question is being whispered – might this delay be linked to the reported closeness between Mr Abramovitch and Mr Putin following the attempted murders in Salisbury and the use of chemical weapons in Syria?

My only minor point is that Mr Abramovitch now understands what it feels like when your anticipated arrival into the UK is stymied by Home office Byzantine procedures, a problem recently experienced by some of the Windrush generation.

Betts Off

Another recent Mail story (headlined ‘Unacceptable! MPs blast fat cat pay at disabled car scheme’) concerns the possibly excessive reward packages collected by Motability Operations Chief Executive Mike Betts and his senior colleagues. Mr Betts is paid £1.7 million per year and his fellow directors were pocketing salaries “totally out of whack with reality.”

It was not revealed if Mr. Betts or any of his colleagues were also benefiting from the heavily subsidised Motability arrangements.

A spokesperson for Motability said something to the effect that Motability had to pay market rate salaries in order to recruit and retain the necessary managerial talent.

Well he/she would say that wouldn’t he/she?

Holdenforth cannot leave matters in this delightfully vague setting. I suggest that the salaries collected by the acquisitive top team be cut by 90% (yes, 90%) and then see how quickly the Motability top talent were snapped in the fierce struggle for the best of the best of the best managerial talent.

The Irish Question

A gloomy final point for today.

Alex Massie, writing in The Times on May 21, highlighted the way in Brexiteers were treating Ireland with contempt. Kicking off in ironic mode, he said that “If it weren’t for the Irish life would be simpler. The Irish, after all, have for centuries been undermining or thoughtlessly complication life for British Governments. This, at any rate, seems to be the Brexiteer mantra.

The time – Easter 1916. The place – Dublin.

Lord Beaverbrook – then Max Aitkin- rang his friend Tim Healy in Dublin to ask about the reported rebellion.

“Is there a rebellion?”

Healy – “there is”

Aitkin – “When did it start?”

Healy – “When Strongbow invaded Ireland”

Aitken – “When will it finish?”

Healy – “When Cromwell gets out of Hell.”

To put the point another way – some Irishmen have long memories and not all of these memories take a kindly view of the actions of the UK authorities towards Ireland down the centuries.

 

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How to Solve a Problem Like the BBC

“The British Broadcasting Corporation, as everyone must know, is a very great organisation. In the world of responsible television there are the BBC and some others. Its genius lies in the quality of the people it attracts…..”
The Age of Uncertainty,  John Kenneth Galbraith, 1977

“Up to a point, Lord Copper”
Scoop, Evelyn Waugh, 1936

The praise lavished by Galbraith on the BBC was, of course, wholly divorced from the fact that the BBC had asked him to “do a TV series on some unspecified aspect of the history of economic or social ideas” and that the lavish praise appeared in the forward to the book of the series. Like many before and after him, Galbraith was not one to bite the hand that fed him.

In the years that have elapsed since The Age of Uncertainty was first shown the BBC has demonstrated a remarkably consistent performance in one area, namely its ability to lavish praise upon itself. A National Treasure is just one of the terms widely deployed by the BBC to describe the BBC.

But – does today’s BBC really merit the self serving opinions of the BBC about the BBC?

Let me use the recent furore that followed the release of the rewards paid out to BBC stars and BBC senior managers as a test case.

I wrote the following letter to The Times on July 20 – it was not published despite my paying close attention to the publication rules of that august organ, the first rule being the need to lavish praise on The Times.

“Sir,
The Times is to be commended for its coverage of the revelations about the high earnings of substantial numbers of BBC employees – The Times July 20. The Times is also to be commended for widening the scope of its coverage to include the bloated bureaucracies that flourish within the BBC.
Mr John Humphreys is quoted as saying that we operate in a market economy and in my view this comment points the way towards an obvious solution to the various problems discussed in your columns.
The privatisation of the BBC would solve all the problems highlighted both by the revelations and by your catalogue of its institutional failings at a stroke – so why not do it?”

The gist of the revelations

“ To discuss my salary and how I’m worth every penny, I’m joined by my mother…”
“ And now my male colleague will read the autocue more expensively”
“ And could you please send the Brexit bill to Gary Lineker, c/o the BBC…”

The above 3 quotes were taken from Matt cartoons in The Daily Telegraph during revelation week and they sum up beautifully how the original story – a searchlight on which stars get what at the top of the BBC – altered rapidly to become yet another story of gender inequality.

“The female of the species is more deadly than the male”
Rudyard Kipling

By the end of the week the BBC was teeming with stars and celebrities of the male persuasion ruefully acknowledging the insight revealed in Kipling’s poem. Forty or so fiery, fuming, fairly well-paid feminists banded together to lodge a protest against the perceived – by them – injustice of the BBC system used to reward its top people.

In truth, there were no great surprises in the revelations despite the shock horror banner headlines. There may have been a few raised eyebrows at some of the more obscure names on the list and equally a few raised eyebrows at some of the reward packages – possibly the latter eyebrows may not have been identical to the former eyebrows.

Some of the names at the very top of the list chose to tough out the storm of adverse publicity – a response that they may live to regret. Mr Lineker was prominent in this micro list.

One not entirely predictable outcome was the peevish response of the fearless forty who used the revelations to voice their perennial gripe that once again women were seen to be on the wrong end of a raw deal. It did not occur to them that to those outside the gilded cage that is the BBC there would be many license payers – of both sexes – who thought that just about all the reward packages paid to all on the list were excessive.

Press and broadcast comment varied from a perception that this was yet another instance of the females of the species anxious to get their dainty little noses into the trough – greed masquerading as concern for the oppressed – to a perception that the time was up for all the excesses that are built into the very fabric of the BBC.

As noted earlier, The Times took the opportunity to wade into the senior management of the BBC across a wide front and not just on the reward packages of the stars, taking aim in an editorial at senior managers with mysterious job titles. “Identity architects,” analytics architects and service architects were listed in this category.

I have to confess that I would be nonplussed if asked to outline the tasks of these latter day Stakhanovites working tirelessly at the media equivalent of the coal face.

Did Mr Kelvin McKenzie, veteran media man and long-time errand boy for Mr Rupert Murdoch, have a point when, in a discussion with a colleague concerning the earnings of the design team at L!ve TV, he observed, ”F—in’ ’ell. Did you hear that, Nick? Forty f—in’ grand for farting about with a comma. We’re in the wrong game, mate”. An unseemly but incisive view on hot air doubling up as creative talent, and one which manages to steer clear of gender matters.

In the following notes I will focus on the managerial problems at the BBC and leave the delicate matter of gender inequality to other, hardier writers. The wife of my bosom these past 51 years supports the feminist cause and I am anxious not to trigger marital disharmony at my time of life.

A stroll down memory lane

“In the beginning the building was without staff and empty.
And Sir John Reith said let there be staff – and there was staff.”
John Holden, with thanks to Frank Dickens and his creation Bristow.

I don’t want to be drawn into comparing today’s BBC with the BBC’s golden age under the management of John Reith. In his day the BBC stuck firmly to its core objectives to inform, to educate and to entertain. The objectives of senior BBC people today might be described as to enrich themselves and their families and friends at the expense of the suckers who pay the licence fee.

Before I bring my story up to today, a brief word about Dr Charles Hill, later Lord Hill who was the Chairman of the BBC from 1967 to 1972. In an earlier era, Dr Hill served the nation in general and listeners to the old BBC Home Service in particular when he gave his weekly talk in his capacity as the Radio Doctor. I can still – just – recall his plummy tones as he exhorted his listeners to take care of their bowels and provided details of the various diets that would promote this commendable objective – an early example of public service broadcasting at its best.

It would be difficult to pinpoint the precise point at which Reithism degenerated into today’s BBC.

Was the takeover of the BBC by the latter day incarnations of Arthur Daley – the light fingered businessman who entertained the nation with his imaginative schemes to persuade the gullible to part with their money – a sudden coup or a slow but steady decline? I incline to the latter explanation.

Q- Why does a dog lick its balls?
A- Because it can!

This old adage about the opportunities available only to the male line of the canine species goes a long way to explain the acquisitive propensities of the senior managers in the BBC.

“I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”
George Washington Plunkitt, a veteran politician of the Tammany Hall era, explaining the difference between honest graft and dishonest graft.

Thus Plunkitt, and thus the senior management of the BBC.

A few BBC case studies in no special order now follow.

The contribution of John Birt

Birt was the Director General of The BBC throughout most of the 1990s. His time at the top was perceived by some as bringing in the much-needed reform of an institution that has ossified in previous years.

Others took the view that he was responsible for the introduction of a tsunami of authentic managerial gibberish.

I suggest that the two views were not and indeed are not mutually exclusive in that there possibly did exist scope to bring the objectives and practices of the BBC up to date and the legacy of Mr Birt was not the way to do it. It was no accident that Birt was close to Tony Blair and that Mr Blair was fond of advocating radical progressive modernist reform but also that he was notably reticent about putting flesh onto the bones of his slogans.

Back to Birt. It was unfortunate that the time of Mr Birt at the BBC was marred when it emerged that his employment arrangements did not include his being employed by the BBC. This was done by an early ingenious agreement that the reward package paid to him was not via the conventional method familiar to you and to me but instead paid to a consultancy owned by Mr Birt.

Not exactly transparent and when made public the arrangement was changed to the one which applied to all the other BBC employees.

This shady innovation has been refined to keep the curious and HMRC at bay and it continues to be popular with the top brass at the BBC.

Speaking of being Marred

A few years ago there was speculation in the media as to the identity of the eminent person who had secured a super injunction to forbid any mention of his alleged playing away from the matrimonial home.

The injuncter was eventually revealed as being Mr Andrew Marr and it turned out that his sexual activities had not been particularly exciting by the exacting standards of today.

What startled some on the outside of the BBC was not the extra marital activities – no big deal there – but rather that the BBC continued to employ in a senior capacity a man who had secured the most despised of sanctions by journalists – a super injunction.

Marr continues to front a Sunday morning programme – The Andrew Marr Show – the very name underlines the descent of the BBC; there’s no business like show business.

A word about Mr Yentob

This gentleman deserves a special mention in the group under discussion. I suspect – and hope – that when normal service is resumed at No 10 Downing Street, that time and resources will be made available to look into the shady past of Alan Yentob. Never in the history of human sharp practice has one man got away with so much from the BBC.  There would be stiff competition to be awarded this coveted accolade but I can see no serious challenger to Yentob.

His chequered BBC career was covered in some media outlets and the following tips of the Yentob iceberg surfaced:

  • It emerged that that was considerable doubt as to what he had been doing, if anything, at the BBC. There had been a time when he had been busy, sufficiently so to build up a pension pot of £6.3 million, an amount that was a record for the public sector and no mean feat of planning to secure an old age that would be adequately cushioned from poverty.
  • Mr Yentob also hit the headlines for the wrong reasons on account of his shaky stewardship of the Kids’ Company charity where it was hinted that he had been less than competent in overseeing the financial affairs of the charity – a far cry from his unmatched competence in the management of his own financial affairs.

The Dimbleby dynasty

The founding father of the Dimbleby dynasty was Richard, a broadcaster whose approach to the job was rooted mostly, but not wholly, in the principles of John Reith. Dimbleby Senior was shrewd enough to recognise a cushy number when he saw one and he duly guided his sons, David and Jonathan, into the BBC using the time honoured methods of nepotism.

I was surprised to see that neither of the Dimbleby brothers featured in the list of revelations but then some alert observer noted that the financial relationship between them and the BBC was fashioned after the approach adopted by John Birt, that is some sort of arms-length relationship to make the task of HMRC that much more difficult.
Doubtless there will be developments here as tireless investigators, not especially in love with the Dimblebys, attempt to unravel the exact rewards of this group.

At one point in the recent general election campaign David Dimbleby looked straight at the camera and spoke of the BBC as being “Your BBC”. Would this assertion have applied before or after the sizeable convoluted payments to the Dimbebys and to those employing similar complex management of their employment terms and conditions?

You tell me.

Jenny Abramsky

I have included my next case study solely to bring comfort and joy to the oppressed forty fiery feminists whose poverty has been in the recent headlines.

On July 13, 2008, William Langley wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph in which he drew attention to the splendid reward package paid to Jenny Abramsky. He noted that JB had “secured a pension worth £4 million, believed to be the largest ever for a public employee in Britain.”

Girls – follow the example of JB and you won’t go far wrong.

A disconcerting point arising from the Langley piece is that little if anything has changed in the past 9 years at the BBC, and that far too much pay continues to be doled out to far too many for doing… what?

James Purnell – Politician turned BBC senior manager

Mr Purnell is an intriguing figure – his Oxford First Class degree and his employment by the BCG consulting group – a group of sharp cookies if ever there was one – mark him out as a man of considerable talent.

He resigned as an MP in 2010 and, after a few years of networking, joined the BBC as a senior manger in an ill-defined but well rewarded capacity.

It may be that Mr Purnell, having endured a rough time following the emergence of some alleged sharp practices at the time of the MP expense scandal, opted to pursue a career where there was still ample opportunity for modest nest-feathering and duly made his way to the BBC.

He will not be happy, not only having to explain his own enviable terms and conditions, but also at having to explain to a suspicious public the enviable terms and conditions paid out by the BBC to the stars and to the senior management.

The Future

So: what are the chances of a real change within the BBC under its present management – let us say a true reversion to the standards applied by John Reith?

The odds in favour are about the same that you and I have of being struck by lightning.

The case against the top management of the BBC is so pervasive and so compelling – it has become a refuge, a safe sanctuary for the Arthur Daleys of our time. Its managers combine the arrogance of a Goering with the hypocrisy of Mr Pecksniff.

A dubious collection of Narcissi continually assuring themselves and the public that they preside over an organisation that is the envy of the world.Actually, there may well some truth embedded in the assertion in the second half of the previous sentence – there may well be many media people across the world full of envy for the cushiness that goes with the job of being a senior BBC manager.

Suggested Remedies
“Why everyone’s pay should be made public”
Libby Purves, The Times, July 24, 2017 
Libby – shall we do one job at a time?

“They are so full of themselves that it is hard to imagine how such a corrupted institution could ever be brought sensibly back onto the rails.”
Christopher Booker, Sunday Telegraph, July 23, 2017 
A policy of despair from Booker. He should follow the splendid advice of Sir Winston Churchill: Never flinch, never weary, never despair. Be a man, CB – shape up.

“The answer to the BBC gender gap is simple: cut the wages of the men”
Dominic Lawson, Daily Mail, July 24, 2017 
His approach won’t even begin to tackle the perceived gender gap.

What approach is likely to bring about the cleansing of the Augean stables that are currently filling up the BBC and who might emerge as Hercules to carry out the job and when?

Q – What do we – the public – want?
A – We want the Augean stables located within the BBC to be thoroughly cleansed .
Q – When do we – the public – want it?
A – We want it now!
Q – Who should be given the job?
A – Well – as someone on the run from John Humphreys in a tricky interview might say – that is a very good question.

A few pointers:
The BBC is in the media business.
It demands a commercial framework when it suits it as a lever to push rewards ever upwards.
It pleads for a national treasure framework when it suits it – surely everyone loves the BBC?

Why not opt for the blindingly obvious solution which is to put it up for sale and then sell it to the highest bidder? Its new owners could then get on the job of managing a new entrant into a competitive global media market.

An eBay ad might read:-
For sale – slightly shop-soiled broadcasting organisation. Some strengths but desperately needs new owners who would have to start with a clear out of the current failing but affluent top brass.

The scope is there to build a sound honest company.

Possible purchasers – Who might be interested?

On the home front – Mr Desmond? Mr Branson?

A foreign buyer – Surely after decades of indoctrination about the benefits of globalisation – now is not the time to baulk at the BBC being sold to an overseas buyer?
USA media moguls? Their equivalents in China? Russia? India? The Middle East?

I beg HMG to start to think outside the box, to think the unthinkable, to undertake genuine blue sky thinking – or even just plain Sky thinking as undertaken by Mr Rupert Murdoch.

Image courtesy of telegraph.com