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

  • ‘A life in writing: Tariq Ali’

    May 8, 2010

    Tariq Ali profiled by James Campbell for the Guardian to celebrate the launch of Night of the Golden Butterfly, May 8, 2010

    In photographs and news footage of political demonstrations of the 1960s, Tariq Ali is unmistakeable: the thick black hair and thatchy moustache; the clenched fist and characteristic surge to the foreground amid a sea of fair faces. Almost immediately on coming down from Oxford in 1966, Ali began to agitate for a workers’ uprising—not just in Britain but across the world. His book 1968 and After: Inside the Revolution (1978) stressed “the key importance of the working class as the only agency of social change”. His hero was Che Guevara. Meeting Malcolm X at an Oxford Union debate in 1964, he was pleased to discover that Malcolm was “a great admirer of Cuba and  …

  • 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.

  • ‘Pakistan: the Aftermath’

    December 31, 2007

    ‘Pakistan: the Aftermath’ by Tariq Ali for Counterpunch, December 31, 2007

    “Arranged marriages can be a messy business. Designed principally as a means of accumulating wealth, circumventing undesirable flirtations or transcending clandestine love affairs, they often don’t work. Where both parties are known to loathe each other, only a rash parent, desensitised by the thought of short-term gain, will continue with the process knowing full well that it will end in misery and possibly violence. That this is equally true in political life became clear in the recent attempt by Washington to tie Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf. The single, strong parent in this case was a desperate state department–with John Negroponte as the ghoulish go-between and Gordon Brown as the blushing bridesmaid—fearful that if it did not push this through both parties might soon be too old  …

  • 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.

  • ‘A protracted colonial war’

    July 20, 2006

    ‘A protracted colonial war’ by Tariq Ali for The Guardian, July 20, 2006

    With US support, Israel is hoping to isolate and topple Syria by holding sway over Lebanon

    In his last interview—after the 1967 six-day war—the historian Isaac Deutscher, whose next-of-kin had died in the Nazi camps and whose surviving relations lived in Israel, said: “To justify or condone Israel’s wars against the Arabs is to render Israel a very bad service indeed and harm its own long-term interest.” Comparing Israel to Prussia, he issued a sombre warning: “The Germans have summed up their own experience in the bitter phrase ‘Man kann sich totseigen!’ ‘You can triumph yourself to death’.”

    In Israel’s actions today we can detect many of the elements of hubris: an imperial arrogance, a distortion of reality, an awareness of its military superiority, the  …