How BBC executives lost the plot...and the ethos of public service
- Category: Broadcasting
The self indulgence of a cohort of departing BBC executives in agreeing between themselves the size of their pay-offs and pension pots came as no surprise to many of the journalists and producers who had worked alongside them. Nicholas Jones, a BBC correspondent for thirty years, traces the origins of a sense of entitlement that took root in the upper echelons of the Corporation and which uncoupled an ‘officer class’from their obligations to the licence payer.
While some employees found the collective strengths and ideals of ‘auntie’ BBC outdated and restrictive, many of my contemporaries ended fulfilling careers acknowledging they had been well rewarded. Most are comforted in retirement by their good fortune in being the beneficiaries of what for them has been a generous final-salary pension scheme. But those of us who stayed the course cannot help but reflect on the gulf that grew ever wider between editorial and production staff and the multiplying layers of upper management
In seeking to explore the factors that led executives to detach themselves from the ethos of a public service financed by a compulsory licence fee, I realise that my own behaviour over the years, and the fact I too am currently the fortunate recipient of a BBC pension, might render my observations as nothing more than a misplaced, self-serving exercise in bashing the BBC.
Indeed the BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen has railed against ‘on-screen talent and some former members of staff’ who have chosen to ‘join the daily chorus of BBC bashing.’ He called on ‘critical friends’ to explain why the BBC ‘really matters and sits proudly at the heart of public service broadcasting.’1 Cohen’s plea echoed that of the director-general Tony Hall who has argued in a series of speeches that the BBC should be ‘more aggressive’ in making the case for the licence fee; the audience should be treated not merely as licence-fee payers but owners; and ‘every time we spend money’, the BBC had to remember that being funded by a licence fee was a tremendous privilege. ‘The people of this country make a bold and generous commitment in paying for the BBC. Every day we are going to show that we are worthy of that commitment.”2
Hall and Cohen probably have little comprehension of how reassuring their approach has been to former employees who watched with despair as high-flying editors and directors appeared to have little difficulty manipulating pay offs and pensions to their financial advantage; more often than not their ‘early retirement’ was a sham as many moved on seamlessly to highly-paid posts in other publicly-funded organisations. What had always marked them out for me was not only their lack of hesitation in playing fast and loose with licence-fee income but also the way they seemed to distance themselves from what sustained the BBC’s independence; they rarely if ever mentioned, let alone defended, the principle of a universal charge on every household with a television set. But even they, I suspect, lacked the effrontery, let alone credibility, to have delivered the kind of undertaking which the director-general has now offered licence-fee payers.
Birt’s legacy: a corporate structure that sidelined the licence fee
The challenge for Hall and Cohen is to ensure their worthy declarations do bring about a change in a deeply-entrenched management mindset. In his eight years as the BBC’s director-general John Birt launched an era of unprecedented innovation and expansion. He also bequeathed a corporate approach that spawned a bonus culture which, according to the National Audit Office, resulted in the BBC paying out £1.4 million to 22 former executives that went beyond their contractual entitlements.3
During the early 1990s Birt built up elite departments handling corporate and strategic relations. Rather than proclaim openly and publicly what the BBC required from licence-fee negotiations, Birt and his acolytes preferred to deal directly but privately with the government of the day, adviser to adviser, strategist to strategist, a process that accelerated once Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister and their appointees became part of a revolving and self-perpetuating web of advisers, lobbyists and the like. Increasingly I sensed that the historic importance of the licence fee was being sidelined in much of the BBC’s public discourse, as though it was a founding principle that dared not speak its name. That omission was all too evident in the approach of Mark Thompson, Hall’s predecessor as director-general. Whenever I heard or read of his representations regarding the BBC’s finances in what after all had become the era of top slicing the licence fee, he seemed content to talk loosely about the government of the day having to ‘provide more money for public service broadcasting.’
I had become so incensed by the management’s reluctance to speak with conviction about the incalculable value of the BBC’s relationship with licence payers, and the sense of self-discipline that this responsibility should impose, that this disconnect became the theme of my contribution at a conference on new threats to media freedom organised by the National Union of Journalists in early 2008. Top slicing was the key issue of the moment: the loss of £14 million to fund the digital switchover, and then more to finance the start-up of new rival services, was seen as a first step towards direct government control over the BBC’s income. My fury was aimed at the executives who in previous years I had worked alongside but who had retreated into the corporate jargon of what had come to be known as ‘Birtspeak’. Where, I asked, were BBC heavyweights punching for the BBC’s independence, singing the praises of the licence fee? ‘I am not ashamed of a compulsory charge on every household. Being upfront like that, having the guts to defend a universal licence fee, has to be the foundation of any future campaigning. It is the activists who are going to have to dig in to defend BBC values and independence.’4
Until now I have held my counsel and refrained from joining in the recent chorus of criticism but the sheer greed of managers awarding themselves pay-offs higher than stipulated in their contracts is a scandal that gets to the heart of the struggle to find a future road map for publicly-funded organisations such as the BBC, especially when so many similar institutions have been privatised and when market forces are considered the final arbiter. For the BBC its very survival, independent of government and still funded by the licence, will be no mean achievement. As the BBC Trust was struggling to explain its failure to police goings on at the top of the Corporation, the Royal Mail was being floated off in the City of London, a reminder if one was needed that governments are quite capable of thinking and enacting the unthinkable.
A Thatcherite free-for all in broadcasting eroded BBC values
Having joined the BBC in 1972, and having managed very briefly against the odds to celebrate my 60th birthday while still an employee, I hope I have the credentials to look back with a degree of informed insight into the circumstances that gave rise to the shameful episodes of recent years. How did the BBC end up being controlled by quite so many selfish and incompetent executives? For me the starting point has to be the challenge which the Corporation faced in adjusting to the rapid expansion of radio and television services during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Opening up the airwaves to competition and loosening the stranglehold of the BBC-ITV duopoly were steps which helped to create and then sustain the vitality of the vibrant broadcasting industry we have today. But the well-ordered structures of ‘auntie’ BBC could not always cope with the repercussions of a Thatcherite free for-all; new services came and went as ratings and market forces eroded the hitherto certainties of the BBC and a commercial television monopoly that had originally been dubbed a ‘licence to print money’.5
I was one of a lucky generation of broadcasters who benefited from several decades of non-stop development funded by a boom in the purchase of colour television licences. My career path through BBC local radio and then to Radio 4 was thanks to the opportunities being created by that extra revenue; as the money continued to roll in so did the expansion in output, the launch of Radio 5 Live, the rollout of 24-hour news and the seemingly limitless horizons of a multi-media environment.
But the transformation that started with the arrival of new television services funded by advertising such as Channel 4 (1982), TV AM (1983) and BSkyB (1990), and the corresponding development of new channels on BBC and ITV, required the Corporation’s management to come to terms with an unprecedented level of commercial pressure. Such was the rate of growth in both radio and television output that it was not only on-air talent that was in short supply but also production staff, editors and managers. Salaries for many attracted to work in the independent sector far exceeded those in the BBC and so were sown the seeds of what became a growing sense of entitlement among BBC executives whose remuneration had previously been pegged to the going rate in other comparable public services. Although many of these executives had no real intention of ever forsaking the security of the BBC and of taking a leap into the uncertain world of short-term contracts and risky ventures, where frankly some would have struggled to survive, they began to think they deserved pay parity; they started to believe propaganda about their own self worth and then discovered they had the opportunity to rewrite their own terms and conditions.
‘I counted them in and I counted them out.’
My distaste of the well-funded self aggrandisement of the BBC’s ‘officer class’6 is laced with memories of some bruising encounters from my years as an industrial and political correspondent. Line managers came and went, some rising inexorably to positions within a managerial layer that maintained a packed diary of engagements but which seemed remote from the demands being placed on editorial and programme staff. When I reflect on the passage of many of the BBC’s executives of my era, I may perhaps be permitted to misquote the unforgettable line from the Falklands War reporting of my former colleague Brian Hanrahan: ‘I counted them in and I counted them out.’7 As they journeyed through the BBC, I experienced at first hand the results of their efforts to make the BBC more cost effective and competitive; I also saw how with the introduction of a bonus culture bequeathed by Birt they were able to reward themselves handsomely in the process.
Efficiencies were needed and I was a keen supporter, for example, of Birt’s push in the early 1990s for BBC journalists to work bi-medially in order to combine the preparation and presentation of editorial output from what until then had been separate newsrooms for radio and television. Indeed I was the political correspondent chosen to work with the first outside broadcast crew required to report for national news bulletins for both television and radio. But my enthusiasm waned when changes in working practices and pay rates divided the staff and damaged the collective spirit, and yes the pride, of working for the BBC. On more than one occasion I purposely dragged my feet and observed in the process the pained expressions of line managers who I believed were under orders from the top to dismantle long-standing terms and conditions simply to enhance the role of executives, allow them to exercise greater control and earn bonuses for themselves in the process.
Any hint of a reluctance to embrace bi-medial working had career-changing consequences. Newsrooms needed fewer staff once radio and television began to share facilities and resources. Enforced early retirement from the age of 50 became the norm for so many of my erstwhile colleagues; enhanced redundancy terms were on offer; top-up cash payments available in return for a reduced pension entitlement; and for those who resisted, there was the threat of being moved to rotas that involved extra night shifts and additional weekend duty. My willingness to accept the rigours of anti-social working extended my career as a political correspondent for another ten years but not without a fight. I was the last national correspondent at BBC Westminster to relinquish established staff status and instead required to sign a contract. Rather than being paid allowances for nights and weekend working I became eligible for a bonus to be determined by my line manager. Such was the continuing pressure within the BBC to weed out the post-50 survivors that I was called in quite regularly and reminded that new and improved redundancy terms were on offer. Perhaps it was my enthusiasm which won the day because in the event I managed with a few days’ grace to see out my last Conservative Party annual conference in 2002, and my 60th birthday, while still a BBC employee.
My pride in becoming a BBC reporter had deep roots; it had taken ten years – and a dozen or so rejection slips – before I finally made it in 1972, and then only because of an unexpected hitch in the final confirmation of the preferred candidate. Family, friends and colleagues considered my appointment as a news producer at BBC Radio Leicester was a step backwards; what had possessed me at the age of thirty to return to provincial journalism as a reporter on a local radio station when after three years in the House of Commons press gallery I had become an established parliamentary and political reporter for The Times? The answer was simple: I admired the immediacy and authority of reporting for the BBC and was prepared to take the risk of moving my wife and two children to Leicester in the confident belief that I would eventually get back to London.
Leicester was a successful station with a loyal audience but its reach was small as its transmission area was restricted to the city itself and towns and villages in the immediate vicinity. But we were a truly local station and could fulfil the goal of public service broadcasting. Early each morning during the rota of power cuts enforced by the 1972 miners’ strike I read out the name of every school that would have to close that day due to restrictions in the supply of electricity.
At a pep talk some weeks later I remember being impressed by the stance of the then director-general Charles Curran. He congratulated the local stations for having served licence payers so well at a time when there was so much disruption to daily life. I was struck by the way Curran had defended the principle of a BBC being funded by a fee that had to be paid by every household with a radio receiver or television set; he seemed not only aware but proud of his responsibility to the licence payer.
The strength of Curran’s commitment to public service broadcasting had made a lasting impression and I was reminded of his clarity about the BBC’s role when Birt launched Extending Choice, his expansionist blue print for the Corporation’s future development. In November 1994 I was one of a hundred BBC employees plucked out of hat and told to attend an Extending Choice seminar, followed by an opportunity to ask him questions. Birt had been spewing out glossy reports, position papers and the like at a formidable rate and when he appeared I stood up, holding my two Extending Choice workshop brochures, and asked whether he thought there would ever come a day when the BBC might have to concentrate on defending and sustaining what it did best. Could we go on expanding our services, spreading ever more thinly our expertise and resources? He gave me a withering look: ‘Of course we must, we can’t stand still, we have to embrace each new service, each new channel, and we can’t stop innovating.’
Birt went on to become Tony Blair’s blue skies thinker and by all accounts produced just as many position papers from his bunker in 10 Downing Street. What happened at the BBC? We lurched into the era of Greg Dyke, staff morale improved and all seemed set fair until his enforced resignation after the publication of the Hutton Report into the death of Dr David Kelly. Nonetheless I was disappointed by Dyke’s stint as director-general. He failed to deal with management excesses or recognise the fact that the BBC had over-reached itself and faced some hard choices. At a conference in 2005 organised in response to the government’s green paper on the future of the BBC, I gave my account of how I thought Dyke had responded to the verbiage of the Birt era. ‘Here it is, his instruction to the staff, Dyke’s famous yellow card: “Cut the crap. Make it happen”. His bit of plastic is a treasured memento. But while he chased the ratings, and did so very successfully, Dyke failed in my view to define our public service role, to start focussing on and prioritising what the BBC does best.’8
Former employees have not enjoyed spending their retirement reflecting on the failures and fiascos of recent years. We do hope that lessons have been learned and that Tony Hall, can as John Major once said, get back to basics and restore the licence-fee payers’ faith in the BBC as an institution and all that it represents. Perhaps a final word should go to Margaret Hodge, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, who has urged Tony Hall and Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, to redouble their efforts to establish clearer lines of accountability. She had her own explanation for the National Audit Office’s calculation that in the three years to 2012 the BBC gave severance payments to 150 senior members totalling £25 million, half the budget of Radio 4: ‘They failed to understand they were dealing with licence-fee payers’ money. There was a culture at the top where people had known each other for years and years. They probably came in together as graduate trainees and it seemed right they should look after each other when they lost their jobs, giving out lots of public money in unacceptably high pay offs.’9 I quite agree: the free for all of the Thatcher era and then the bonus culture of the Blair years had encouraged seemingly limitless expansion and profligacy which had combined to exact a terrible toll on the BBC. Hall’s recognition that licence-fee payers were taken for a ride is a promising start.
1 Cohen, Danny, BBC director of television, BBC news conference, 5 December 2013
2 Hall, Tony (Lord Hall of Birkenhead), BBC director-general, speech, BBC Radio Theatre, 8 October 2013
3 National Audit Office report, Severance payments and wider benefits for senior BBC managers, 4 September 2013
4 Jones, Nicholas, speech, New Threats to Media Freedom, conference, National Union of Journalists, 26 January 2008
5 Thomson, Roy (Lord Thomson of Fleet), launch of Scottish Television, 1957
6 Hall, Tony, speech, Edinburgh International Television Festival 22 August 2013
7 Hanrahan, Brian: His 1982 Falklands War commentary included the line: ‘I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.’
8 Jones, Nicholas, speech, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, conference on BBC green paper, 5 March 2005
9 Hodge, Margaret, chair House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, interview, R4 Today programme, 16 December 2013
Nicholas Jones joined BBC Radio Leicester as a news producer in January 1972. He was promoted to national radio news reporter in 1973; became a labour and industrial correspondent for Radio 4 in 1978; and then a political correspondent in 1988. His books include Strikes and the Media (1986), Soundbites and Spin Doctors (1995), Sultans of Spin (1999), Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (2006), and The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents? (2011).
Illustrations: Daily Mail 22.3.2014; The Times, 16.12.2013; Daily Mail, 17.12.2013; I 10.9.2013; Mail on Sunday, 15.9.2013.