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8 January 1999

Even the Queen Mum was spiked

Ted Harrison came up with a simple ruse to confirm his suspicions about the bureaucracy that is stif

By Ted Harrison

The Queen Mother has been turning down pleas from both ITV and the BBC for an historic first television interview. Each gentle but firm rebuff has served merely to fuel the broadcasters’ frenzy to bag the interview of the century.

To think that only last November James Boyle failed to commission a programme that boasted an exclusive interview with the Queen Mum in which she talked about the abdication crisis which brought her husband, King George VI, to the throne!

Regrettably, when the programme idea arrived at Broadcasting House at the beginning of November it was too late. The current “round” had closed at 1700 hours on 8 October. Also, the proposal was neatly summarised on one side of paper and not electronically submitted on the Radio 4 “RAP” template. Furthermore, it did not have an allocated 12-digit reference number, neither was it pitched specifically at one of the “yellow” slots in the schedule to fit a position identified by Radio 4 focus group research.

Consequently, the proposal by the independent production company was returned with the words, “Radio 4 is no longer able to accept unsolicited ideas, scripts and proposals from suppliers who are not on our registered supplier list.” The letter concluded: “Thank you for your interest in Radio 4. Best wishes, James Boyle.”

Now is the time to own up. The production company was a fictitious one. The scoop did not exist. The proposal had been sent as a simple ruse to test the Radio 4 barricades, and it can now be confirmed that the network barricades are indeed highly efficient. The idea was not returned with a “you can’t be serious” note, or even a letter asking for further evidence of the scoop. It was simply discounted because it had not been submitted according to the correct bureaucratic procedures.

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When James Boyle took over as controller about a year ago, the mood at Radio 4 was bleak. Programme-makers felt demoralised because they were working on short-term contracts and were forced to accept the introduction of the BBC’s internal market, “producer choice”, and its maze of bureaucratic procedures.

James Boyle, in response, created a brand new commissioning system. He sought audience opinion first, then restructured the schedule, and only afterwards did he begin the search for programme proposals to fill the slots.

The approach had some obvious pitfalls. When they are consulted through market research, audiences do not contribute creative ideas, they simply respond to the suggestions put to them by the researchers. Results, therefore, are restricted by the limits of the researchers’ imagination.

When it came to the commissioning rounds, Boyle did not request a free flow of ideas. He wanted proposals which were directed at pre-identified slots to predetermined formulas. He stipulated that only approved programme-makers could submit ideas and they had to do so in a specific manner (each submission had to carry a correct programme reference number) and by a specific time on a pre-ordained date.

Old hands who spoke fondly of how some of the best BBC programmes were sketched out on the backs of old envelopes by producers and artists having a drink had to bite their tongue: talk of such a laid-back approach was blasphemy in the new BBC. The system seemed so inflexible, I began to suspect that if a latter-day Dylan Thomas had forgotten, in offering a new Under Milk Wood, the correct programme reference number or had pitched the play at the wrong “yellow” slot, he would have been turned away.

I decided to put the matter to the test and Bouquette Productions was born. On 1 November, a letter was sent offering what any editor in any medium would have instantly recognised as a significant scoop. The formal formatted rejection arrived back within days. My worst hunch was confirmed.

I would now suggest that if Radio 4 is to recover its listeners and status, James Boyle needs completely to dismantle his commissioning system. He needs to get out and about among his producers, both those in-house and the independents. He needs to engage in creative dialogue with them, encouraging them to send him ideas at any time – even if only on paper. He must free his producers of the bureaucratic millstones that presently hinder them. At the end of the day the only market research he needs to worry about is that which confirms that the decline in Radio 4’s audience has been reversed.

It is interesting to recall that, when Radio 5 Live started up, new programmes were found without any of the bureaucratic flim-flam. The controller and her team were quick, imaginative and decisive in the way they commissioned material. The station became a great success.

It bodes well for the future of Radio 4 that the new director of BBC radio – and also James Boyle’s boss – is Jenny Abramsky, the person who led the 5 Live team from the beginning.

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