Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Death of Reith

I vowed never to blog about my work. So here it is.

I joined the BBC in 1989 during the Corporation's final days as a dusty, slightly dog-eared institution. The newsroom still used typewriters and messages were sent round the building by vacuum tube. We had two satellite dishes, and one of them was used solely for MTV. Instant news and the arrival of the computer (green-on-black monochrome monitors costing a grand each) put an end to all that, as so did another new arrival - corporate change.

As Director General Michael Checkland left for a retirement in the House of Lords, so John Birt arrived. Words like "culture", "values", "multiskilling" and "mission statement" were said openly and without embarrassment, as were the words "bollocks" and "bugger this I'm off". Undoubtedly, the corporation, still living in the age of Reith, needed a kick up the arse, and Birt applied it with business plans, seminars and a patronising manner that got right up everybody's nose. Birt saved the BBC as a business, prepared it for the demands of the global marketplace, but with it he destroyed staff morale and all pride in our work.

Birt's "change or die" preaching was well founded in a desire to modernise, but on the shop floor it more or less meant the proles getting their cards and hapless, toadying management promoted beyond their competence. Programme makers were forced to become businessmen, buying in expertise from other departments in a free market that would have given Margaret Thatcher orgasms. This was Birt's unpopular "Producer Choice" idea, which actually ended in many producers exercising their choice to work outside the BBC.

There was even a procedure to procure forms for this madness - producers drowned in reams of paperwork, and there are stories of programme-makers sending runners to the shops for CDs and stationary to save time and money. Getting someone search the music archive and fish out a track for a programme could cost, say, fifty quid. Sending a runner to Tower Records cost a tenner.

Birt may have been right in principle, but lost in his open-market dogma, he lost the plot over what the BBC was all about - creativity. There was a time in the early to mid nineties where it was frankly embarrassing to admit to working for the people that gave the world Eldorado. I told people I was a civil servant.

Greg Dyke appeared on a wave of apathy, and despite low expectations, he made it OK to work for the BBC again. You could read the staff magazine "Ariel" (otherwise known as Pravda) in the staff canteen without being laughed at. You could tell people who you worked for and still have their respect in the morning. Greg (we always called him that, bless him) may have come across as-too-matey-by half with his jacket slung over his shoulder, but he cared about the corporation from top to bottom, and wasn't afraid to make unpopular decisions. The sale of BBC Technology killed of the illusion of St Greg in some quarters, as did the outsourcing of property management and the construction of the Grey Lubyanka in White City, where jobs would mysteriously disappear en route from other locations.

However, he said "Cut the crap" and crap was cut. "Make it happen", and things happened. It was more than a glorified staff suggestion scheme, MiH allowed for simplified programme commissioning; and staff taking control of their surroundings and working hours. "One BBC" - while Birt's regime divided the corporation into competing units, it is now far simpler to work with another department without first asking "What's your charge code?", and job sharing and short-term attachments are the rule rather than the exception. Runners are still sent out to Smiths for CDs and Chris Moyles is still a dick, but who said things were perfect?

On the outside, the BBC hardly changes its public face - people just see the news at six, EastEnders, crapoid Saturdays nights. Any change is gradual and unnoticed in the long term. But inside, it is a rapidly changing beast, far younger than it used to be, and staffed with people who, at last, care about the corporation as much as their care for their own jobs.

There is nothing in the world, however, like a vengeful Blairite, and Hutton has left the BBC on a knife-edge just two years before charter renewal. The licence fee? Editorial independence? The right to take risks and ask difficult questions? All these, say here today, and dare I say it, gone tomorrow, culture minister Tessa Jowell are beyond discussion - but how many both within and outside the corporation actually believe her? After all, the Kelly affair left both Chairman Gavyn Davies and DG Dyke sacrificed to the government like pawns in a one-sided game of chess.

Governments are sprawling Jekyll and Hyde organisations. They come to power on a tide of promises and goodwill, but eventually the power hungry Hyde surfaces with his broken promises, trampling on those who get in their way. Underneath the officially airbrushed smile is a sharp-toothed monster, spinning for all it's worth, and is never, ever wrong.

So, who do you trust? A BBC that makes mistakes every now and then, or a rabid print media in the hands of a few millionaire businessmen that can lie and distort on their front pages and never have to take a word back; whilst spoon-feed stories by political spin-doctors?

For 116 quid a year you get eight TV channels, five national radio networks, separate networks for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with their own language services. Local radio. The world's best web site. Your taxes buy the world's most listened to radio station. I know who I trust, and I'm proud to work for them.

The Scaryduck Archive

No comments: