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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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