BBC reform: cut management and give more freedom to programme-makers

‘BBC reform: cut management and give more freedom to programme-makers’ by Tariq Ali for The Guardian, November 11, 2012

Is the BBC in such a petrified or paralysed state, so badly decayed, that it is beyond repair? Are all hopes of inner movement or structural reform misplaced?

To read the national press this would appear to be the case. I’m not so sure. Hysteria has now reached absurd proportions, as has the level of public discussion on the issues at stake. George Entwistle, his predecessor Mark Thompson and Helen Boaden, director of news, are reminiscent more of middle-level bureaucrats in Honecker’s Germany than creative-minded managers. Entwistle has fallen on his sword. More might opt for hara-kiri, but on its own this will solve very little.

There is an underlying problem that has confronted the BBC since Sir John Birt was made director general in Thatcher’s time. His predecessor (bar one) had been sacked effectively on Thatcher’s orders in 1987 for not “being one of us”.

A reliable toady, Marmaduke Hussey, was catapulted on to the BBC board as chairman. His first task was to sack director general Alasdair Milne for “leftwing bias”. Thatcher was livid that the BBC had permitted her to be grilled on the Falklands war on a live programme by a woman viewer from Bristol who successfully demolished the prime minister’s arguments.

Thatcher disliked the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands war and the miners’ strike and highlighted a number of other documentaries that were considered “too leftwing”. A faceless bureaucrat replaced Milne till the appointment of John Birt, a dalek without instincts or qualities, who transformed the BBC into the top-heavy managerial monster that it has become.

Birt feared that the Tories would privatise the BBC. He pre-empted this by institutionalising private sector methods and dumbing down the BBC so effectively as to destroy any notion of diversity within British television. The number of managers assigned to broadcast units became a sad joke and instead of considered argument management-speak, lampooned fortnightly by Private Eye, became the norm. Not wishing to offend Thatcher, the BBC gave Murdoch much of what he wanted to stabilise Sky. Cricket, for instance, was no longer available to those who paid the licence fee.

When New Labour won, a New BBC was already in place. Blair and his spin doctors Campbell and Mandelson turned out to be even worse control freaks than Thatcher. Together with their subordinates, they regularly harassed producers complaining about what they perceived to be anti-government bias. Radio 4’s Today programme became a favourite Blairite target. Simultaneously they were crawling to Murdoch at regular intervals, hobnobbing regularly with the editors and staff of the Sun and happily inhaling the stench of the Murdoch stables.

After Birt’s departure there was some improvement. Greg Dyke did have some instincts. For one he defended BBC journalists, for another he sometimes resisted the blandishments and abuse that emanated from Downing Street.

But just as the Falklands war had brought down Milne, the Iraq war did for Dyke. Treating an accurate report from Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme as lese majesty, a British judge, Hutton by name, seemed to ignore the bulk of the evidence and declared the BBC guilty. Dyke had to resign while an exultant Alastair Campbell, crowing like a cock on a dung heap, addressed the rest of the media. Hundreds of BBC journalists assembled on the street to bid a fond farewell to Dyke. That had never happened before.

The atmosphere of fear and the self-censorship that followed is hardly a secret. Under Birt, creativity had been suffocated. The new management structures had destroyed departmental autonomy. Heads of departments no longer had the same freedoms as before: current affairs, drama, light entertainment all suffered. The right to fail, so essential to creativity, was no longer part of the deal. Ratings and competition is all that mattered, give or take a few good documentaries. Would a current department boss have taken on a contemporary equivalent of Monty Python with the words: “I don’t like it myself, but make six programmes and then we’ll see.” Ask those who work there.

This is the background to the present crisis. This is the reason why editors of TV programmes are too often scared to take the right decisions. This is why only tried and trusted (ie, safe and sound) people are promoted. Peter Rippon was one of them, but he was not alone in dumping the investigation. That decision was taken by a superior and everybody in the BBC knows their name. Who did they consult? Perhaps we will now find out.

It is the culture of the BBC that needs to be overhauled with the redundant parts (mainly useless management appendages) replaced and some freedom given to programme-makers. There is no sign whatsoever that this is what the government or the opposition wants. Time, perhaps, for licence-fee payers to occupy.read more

From the archive

  • ‘Shimmering Prose against the Clash of Civilisations’

    September 7, 2011

    Night of the Golden Butterfly reviewed by Claudia Kramatschek for Qantara, June 10, 2011

    Since 9/11 at the latest, every fable on the state of our world appears to follow a formula that is as cheap as it is simplifying: The dominant rhetorical model is that of a clash of civilisations, depicting one side as enlightened and therefore per se in the right, and the other as backward and caught up in the constant agony of crisis and terror.

    The western media – and if nothing else the journalist and novelist Tariq Ali, who was born in Pakistan in 1943 and emigrated to London in 1963 owing to his political activities, also makes this clear in his new novel – add their own model to the mix, with the result that the word Islam automatically makes people think  …

  • Tariq Ali’s speech at the National Demonstration for Gaza on 8th August, London.

    August 13, 2014

    Here is a video of Tariq Ali’s speech at the largest UK demonstration for Gaza on 8th August, London.

  • ‘Musharraf was rambling and impervious to tormented cries from his people’

    August 18, 2008

    ‘Musharraf…’ by Tariq Ali for The Independent, August 19, 2008

    General Pervez Musharraf acted swiftly and ruthlessly when he seized power to become Pakistan’s fourth military dictator in October 1999. He proclaimed himself Chief Executive of Pakistan. When he lost the confidence of two key board members—the United States and the Pakistan Army—majority shareholders of Pakistan plc, he realised his time had come. After a rambling, incoherent address to the nation, replete with the most puerile self-justifications, he resigned. He should have done so when his term expired, but afflicted with the power disease, his mind remained impenetrable to the tormented cries from below.

    We can only speculate whether he would have lasted nine years had it not been for 9/11 and the “war on terror”. A previous dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), had similarly become a vital cog  …

  • Tariq Ali’s speech at the National Demonstration for Gaza on 8th August, London.

    August 13, 2014

    Here is a video of Tariq Ali’s speech at the largest UK demonstration for Gaza on 8th August, London.

  • Ralph Miliband: An Obituary

    October 8, 2013

    Tariq Ali’s obituary for Ralph Miliband, first published in the Independent, May 1994.

    Ralph Miliband was a socialist intellectual of great integrity.

    He belonged to a generation of socialists formed by the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. His father, a leather craftsman in Warsaw, was a member of the Jewish Bund, an organisation of socialist workers. Poland, after the First World War, was beset by chaos, disorder and, ultimately, a military dictatorship. There were large-scale migrations. One of Ralph’s uncles had gone eastwards and joined the Red Army, then under Trotsky’s command. His parents had left Warsaw separately in 1922. They met in Brussels where they had both settled and were married a year later. Ralph was born in 1924.