A revolution at the BBC?

19 Sep 2012  |  Raymond Snoddy 

Raymond Snoddy says listen carefully to George Entwistle's fine words and you can find a series of dilemmas, if not downright inconsistencies, rather more serious than the treatment of senior women...

There is always a ritual of passage for a new director general of the BBC. A studio is hired. The BBC staff are assembled. A long speech is made full of fine words, which spell out how important it is that things have got to change given the enormity of the challenges the BBC faces etc etc.

Effusive tributes are paid to the immediate predecessor, which of course cannot be entirely sincere otherwise the need for change would not be quite so great.

The staff nod wisely, are momentarily reminded of why they wanted to work for the BBC in the first place - before getting back to back-biting and leaking against each other in the normal way.

George Entwistle, the 15th director-general of the BBC, had a small tactical dilemma to deal with when he made his formal bow this week.

He wants to see more senior women at the BBC, both on and off screen - at the same time as announcing that the two most senior women in the organisation, Caroline Thomson, chief operating officer (and a rival for his job) and the BBC's chief financial officer, are both leaving.

Thomson's job is disappearing, as operations is being merged with finance, which means that "Caroline Thomson and I have agreed the time is right for her to leave the organisation" - almost immediately.

We can only speculate about how much genuine 'agreement' there was in that manoeuvre.

When Zarin Patel has absorbed Thomson's job and created a new business unit incorporating finance and operations she in turn will wander off within the next 12 months.

At least Lucy Adams, director of BBC people, has been restored to a slimmed down executive board - so that's a result then.

As for Miriam O'Reilly, she would be welcome back to the BBC if she came up with a totally brilliant new idea.

There are obviously deep worries about the grey hairs of presenter Fiona Bruce and the fact that she feels she has to dye her hair to continue reading the news and presenting Antiques Roadshow.

This is clearly an outrageous imposition and one that was ruthlessly and relentlessly exposed in John Humphrey's interview with the new DG on the Today programme.

Unfortunately the grey hairs of La Bruce got such a going over there was little time for dealing in an equally sustained way with rather more serious matters.

Listen carefully to George Entwistle's fine words and you can find a series of dilemmas, if not downright inconsistencies, rather more serious than the treatment of senior women.

In-house production, George insists, is a vital mechanism to guarantee editorial standards, protect specialisms and create intellectual property. But how does that square with a major scaling up in our "engagement with partners?".

And isn't there more than a hint that Entwistle wants to take the best ideas wherever they come from, which would mean an increased reliance on independent production with the loss of more jobs in in-house production.

The new director-general is fully understanding of the contribution made by BBC Worldwide to the overall Corporation and believes that it would be very difficult for the BBC "to remain successful in the UK without scale and success overseas too".

In a sentence that must send a shiver down the back of Worldwide's chief executive John Smith, Entwistle went on: "What we cannot endure is the possibility of there being a perceived gap between the purposes of the public service here in the UK and our international presence as delivered by burgeoning success by BBC Worldwide."

Most people, including Lord Patton, chairman of the BBC, think Smith took a step too far by buying Lonely Planet. Yet what if BBC Worldwide's "burgeoning success" had resulted from a degree of separation and freedom, which is apparently now going to be undermined?

There are a few more eyebrows to be raised. Improving creativity in the organisation by between 10% and 20% without any stated mechanism for doing so other than talking to each other. There should be more robust internal criticism but carried out in private. In public would be much a much better idea.

The most difficult words for the BBC to say is "sorry, we got that one wrong" - as we saw when Entwistle was on holiday - only in the UK - and therefore unable to face the music over Jubilee boat fiasco.

But the biggest worry of all is the largest issue - the future structure of the production divisions of the BBC and how programmes will be distributed in future.

It is clear that Entwistle wants to do something about the separate divisions of Audio and Music, Vision and Future Media. "We will need to integrate all three disciplines - definitively," says Entwistle. Three more top jobs on the line.

But that won't amount to a re-run of the John Birt's disastrous bi-media experiment in the 1990s, where people who loved and were good at one thing were asked to do another.

So how will it be different this time apart from being "genre based" - and what exactly does producing "genuine digital content", as opposed to the other sort, actually mean?

Entwistle is convinced that broadcast is an increasingly expensive and challenging environment and more distribution of services will occur via the internet in future. "We are going to have to think this through and be ready to meet its challenges," insists George. Of course, but just so long as the BBC doesn't try to take this particular fence five or 10 years too early.

At least we now have a director-general who travels by tube and, when he needs the help of consultants, hires a single one from Deloitte rather than the tens of millions of pounds worth of McKinsey consultants, who helped Lord Birt in the days when the BBC was one of McKinsey's biggest clients in Europe.

For me, one line in his long speech stands out vividly: "If ever you're praised for someone else's work, I hope you'll put the record straight." If that were to happen it really would amount to a revolution at the BBC.

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