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