The BBC needs more executives like the author of this book. Photo: Getty
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Auntie under attack: life inside the BBC

This book paints a wonderfully accurate picture – sometimes painfully so – of the inner workings of the BBC: its high hopes and petty jealousies, its triumphs and disasters.

Getting Out Alive: News, Sport and Politics at the BBC
Roger Mosey
Biteback Publishing, 324pp, £20

The BBC has been the nation’s punchbag almost since the day of its inception. From the earliest days of BBC news in the 1920s  – when it had to agree to broadcast no news bulletins before 7pm so as not to threaten the livelihood of the daily newspapers; and when, during the 1926 General Strike, Churchill wanted to turn it into a government propaganda agency – the organisation has been under almost permanent attack from both its media rivals and the government of the day. (At the time of the strike some critics said it should be called the “British Falsehood Company”.)

Yet it has survived. More than that, it remains the world’s most respected broadcaster. From Morecambe and Wise to the Proms, Strictly Come Dancing to Wolf Hall, the BBC has added immeasurably to the richness of the nation. The BBC World Service is by far Britain’s most influential cultural export. And all for 40p a day per television-owning household.

The BBC’s top executives – people such as the no-nonsense newsman Roger Mosey, who has written a hugely entertaining insider’s account of life with Auntie – are, by and large, talented and creative people. But their skill at creating and making world-class programmes is, alas, rarely matched by their crisis management skills.

Over recent years the BBC has taken a pummelling of blows to the head, and despite the protestations of the present director general, Tony Hall, the latest licence-fee deal looks as if it will hasten its eventual demise. Yet again, the BBC has found itself negotiating its future at gunpoint. Just as five years ago, when Mark Thompson was forced to accept a deal that appeared to have been composed on the back of an envelope, so now, a few days of frantic talks conducted well out of the public gaze have ended up placing the future of the BBC at risk.

Its greatest triumph in recent years has been its coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. From the splendour of the opening ceremony, in the planning of which the BBC was intimately involved, to the ­achievement of broadcasting every event from every venue (at peak times it was transmitting simultaneously on 24 channels), this was the BBC at its unparalleled best.

Then, less than two months later, the Jimmy Savile story broke – and the BBC buckled at the knees. The new director general, George Entwistle, was engulfed, and although inside the corporation he was well liked and respected, the public furore overwhelmed him. The golden post-Olympics glow vanished overnight.

Mosey was in charge of the Olympics coverage and he became one of the handful of top executives trying to deal with the Savile crisis. He had edited three of Radio 4’s daily news programmes – PM, The World at One and Today – missing out only The World Tonight, which he says got him “fixated” on radio at the age of about 12. He had also run Radio 5 Live and BBC television news. Yet his start in life was far from the image of privileged metropolitan mandarins that the corporation’s critics like to project: he was born in 1958 in a mother-and-baby home to a single woman in Warrington, Cheshire, adopted as a baby and brought up in Bradford. His relatives were miners, train ­drivers, farmers and shop assistants.

His book paints a wonderfully accurate picture – sometimes painfully so – of the inner workings of the BBC: its high hopes and petty jealousies, its triumphs and disasters. Mosey confesses that his idea of the ideal relationship between producer and presenter was most accurately set out in a one-word instruction written on the glass that separated studio from control room: “Obey.” (In my early days as a radio presenter out on the road I was told: “The producer makes the programme; the presenter carries the kit.”)

Having left the BBC in 2013 to become Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Mosey has been critical of some of the BBC’s all-too-evident shortcomings. (Which other organisation would hold finance meetings in the Del Boy Room?) Its management structure is still absurdly convoluted; and its attempts always to be “balanced” in its news coverage can sometimes lead it too close to the edge of inaccuracy. He cites a memo from the corporation’s editorial policy team about coverage of asylum-seekers. It read, he writes, “like a pure liberal-defensive response rather than a quest for range and diversity in our journalism”. In general, though, he is far less critical of the BBC’s overall political balance than you might suppose from the selective extracts serialised ahead of publication.

Mosey has suggested (as did the editor of this magazine last week) that perhaps the BBC should do less; yet there remains the critical dilemma of how to reconcile the imposition of a universal licence fee with a slimmed-down BBC of less-than-universal appeal. These are the issues that will be at the heart of the debate over this week’s government green paper on the BBC’s future (not yet published at the time of writing), and Mosey’s book, albeit light on the big strategic decisions that will need to be ­taken, is a valuable contribution to that debate.

Gordon Brown once said that there are only two kinds of chancellor: those who fail and those who get out in time. The same ­applies to BBC executives, and Mosey got out in time. His relief is palpable, as evidenced by the title of this candid and clear-eyed book by one of the best and the brightest of the Beeb’s recent bosses. The BBC needs more Roger Moseys.

Robin Lustig was a BBC radio presenter from 1989 to 2012

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.