Getting Out Alive: News, Sport and Politics at the BBC
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