The BBC has to learn to listen to itself by Nick Fraser
Nov 18, 2013
The new Director General wants to overhaul the BBC's corporate culture. This doesn't need management reform or expensive consultants, says Nick Fraser. It just needs the BBC to get better at listening, and trusting.
Two startling events have enlivened the BBC in the past month or so. The first is the Newsnight encounter between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman, now witnessed by close to nine million. Not so widely attended to, and yet more significant, was the new Director General (D.G.)’s account of the direction in which he intended to steer the BBC.
Casual listeners will have absorbed the proposal that there should be more arts on the BBC. I’m not so sure about this (not because arts and the BBC do not fit, but because the BBC already shows a lot of art) but I can understand why anyone coming from the Opera House would want this.
But I was struck by two apparently more modest propositions, both of them momentous. The first is the notion that all of what used to be called Talks should be put online, so that anyone in the world with an internet connection can access them. This is a great and simple idea, and it doesn’t cost anything. The BBC was the world’s TED before the latter existed. No-one has ever given proper due the BBC’s role in supplying ideas and conversation around the globe. I hope this move will lead not just to more of the world hearing how the BBC interprets what we Brits think, but how the rest of the world thinks, too.
More important still is the D.G.’s frank acknowledgment that the BBC’s corporate culture is in bad need of a total overhaul. The candour here is off the dial. We’re promised ‘a bonfire of committees’. Instead of the current culture of non- or half-consensus through interminable emails, decision-making will be privileged. People will be encouraged to take responsibility. If they mess up (and fess up) they will be forgiven. Meanwhile the BBC should relearn the taking of risks.
To my amazement, something of this has already begun to happen. Sometimes you don‘t need more money. Sometimes it’s enough to go out and do things. Why not get Kirtsty Wark dancing on Halloween night? And why not create the circumstances in which Jeremy Paxman gets to discuss his own beard? Such things happened in the 1960s, under the stewardship of Hugh Greene. They can happen again without the sky falling. They should happen more frequently. They should – dare I say it – come to define the BBC.
It may be more difficult, however, to ensure that such radical notions become part of the way the BBC thinks of itself. John Birt attempted to impose reforms top down, in what was referred to as a Leninist style. Greg Dyke came up with yellow and red cards that the staff were supposed to wave at each other.
It was perhaps necessary to rein in the powers of BBC baronies with a centralized system of commissioning, though many feel, not without reason, that this has led to a loss of diversity. Less defensible is the system of ‘compliance’ whereby programmes are checked and counter-checked against what are supposed to be the most rigorous standards of accuracy, fairness etc. Few would suggest that this system has been successful. It is certainly antipathetic to the risk-taking that is being urged on programme-makers. And meanwhile those who work in this area – lawyers most of all – find themselves doing the work of two or three people.
Working with others is something the BBC has never been good at, but it has become more difficult to do so in recent years, once again as a consequence of corporate nervousness. It is suggested now that the BBC, having less money, will need to enter partnerships. But it is not clear what constitutes a desirable partnership, and what remains verboten. You can set out in the direction of collaboration, and find yourself pulled back. At the most simple level this needs to be changed. The BBC can no longer afford a stiff-jointed system of promoting itself and its programmes that hasn’t really changed since the mid-1960s, when BBC2 was created. Why should it be so difficult to work with newspapers or, where it seems appropriate, with NGOs? The answer is that it shouldn’t be, so long as the BBC’s independence is preserved. Here as elsewhere, in order to do more the BBC needs to worry less.
But I don’t feel that such changes are so difficult to implement. Though I cannot explain exactly why, my sense is that we are in for a good BBC time – and not necessarily a golden age that we can then remember with fondness when the horrors return. Why not be bold, after all? Why not try it out?
As far as the Hall non- or anti-doctrine goes, I have a simple, uncontroversial suggestion. There should be no overt or systemic management reforms. No consultants must be hauled in to scrutinize organigrams or create more of them. Instead, those who make programmes, or supervise them should feel free to say how the way they work can be improved. They can take responsibility for improving it. The BBC has to learn to listen to itself again. We’ll know this is happening when it begins to happen.