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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.