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A sense of perspective on the BBC

This a flawed, human institution like any other.

This week I bundled into Broadcasting House to make a programme, running the gamut of camera crews huddled in the rain waiting for the next crack to appear. Hundreds of other worker bees were doing the same, getting on with making the sort of programmes the public automatically expect to be well researched, responsibly written and overall excellent. Hundreds of hours of such programmes pour from the BBC every day. They reach every corner of the country, spread across the world, earn money and reputation . . . and have no commercials! So let’s have a sense of perspective, shall we?

Nonetheless wherever broadcasters come together they moan about the BBC. It’s always the same gripe: too many managers. Journalists and reporters who are used to dissecting Middle East strategy or the structure of the eurozone take one look at the BBC and know at once what is wrong.

Example – some years ago I was presenting a series for Radio 4. The pilot had not gone well; my producer knew it and I knew it. And we both knew why. Instead of our simply buckling down and getting it right, the pilot was referred up – not by one layer but three. “Why don’t we,” I asked, “simply get round a table and discuss everyone’s criticism?” Absolutely out of the question, I was told. It would be totally inappropriate. Instead, a host of criticisms came trickling back for my benefit each from a different office. I never met any of their sources. Nothing that has happened this past week has surprised me.

There has always been a paradox at the very top of the BBC. It has its own management board, the executive board, which like the board of any other business is there to run it. It is made up of seven top executives plus five non-executive directors. For at least the past decade this board has been grappling with major financial problems, having to cut budgets to meet financial targets while providing more and more services. There have been swathes of job losses and redundancies. Hundreds of journalists have gone. Programme funding has been cut year on year. Finally it has hit what in other sectors would be called front-line services.

In the 1980s, the glory days of Newsnight, there was a cadre of journalists who worked to the highest standards – John Tusa, Vincent Hanna, Charles Wheeler. Surrounding them was a swarm of eager producers with sharp brains and savvy journalistic instincts that gave them deep and reliable back-up: Tim Gardam, Lorraine Heggessey, Mark Damazer and Mark Thompson were among them. Morale was high. Such professional excellence needs sustaining. It needs more than the reputation of its famous presenters.

If the executive board runs the BBC what, then, is the BBC Trust? It has always had something of an ambiguous role. Does it face inwards towards the BBC as the final call of authority within the organisation? Or does it face the public as the representative of the licence payers and the body that mediates the view of outsiders towards an entirely independent institution? Just as lowly broadcasters refer up to layers above them, it isn’t clear which body – its executive board or the trust –holds the final say in the running of the BBC.

The BBC has always been beholden to the government of the day for the renewal of the licence fee. It puts it unavoidably in a politically- dependent position. In a world full of new broadcasting rivals and ideological attacks on the very concept of the public sector, its integrity and survival is increasingly at risk.

Major mistakes – such as Newsnight’s disastrous broadcast – simply open the floodgates to its commercial rivals and political enemies. What newspaper has not on occasion made a gross error and had to apologise and pay up? But the BBC is far more than any single newspaper and that is why, in some quarters, it is so hated. It remains the overarching source of entertainment and information and the bedrock of broadcasting values for the entire country. No wonder the Jimmy Savile disclosures are so damaging.

After David Kelly’s death and the Hutton Report in 2003 the BBC became timid. Corrective procedures were put in place. After the Russell Brand scandal in 2008 it cowered even further. Compliance requirements were issued on a grand scale. But the BBC is a human institution: like any other, it is flawed. It may have been the aspiration of its first director general Lord Reith that it should be entirely perfect, but he was a puritanical control freak.

The BBC now needs a large dose of courage that enables it to look boldly on its structural failings and put some hefty remedies in place. It has a decades-long history of fine programmes that have made legends of its stars, educated the public, spawned heaps of imitators and won a unique reputation throughout the broadcasting world. It now needs to be left alone to regret, to mourn and to repair itself.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC