Bureaucracy is the one sure winner in the BBC’s strategic review – the suits and wonks. It’s sort of like natural selection turned upside: in a changing environment, the most useless survive.
Mark Thompson’s review, leaked to the Times today, was supposed to review the Corporation’s output, and it could have helped made inroads into this culture, but it hasn’t. And although the “cuts” are trumpeted to fall on digital operations such as web and DAB, you know what will happen next.
Of course bureaucracy has been the winner of the past ten years – the public sector middle manager on private sector wages and perks is as much a symbol of the era as was the Victorian mill owner. The BBC is no exception. Whether it’s a ‘crisis’ (Ross/Brand) or an opportunity (Web 2.0), layers of process are added at the corporation.
To give you an example of the scale of just the BBC’s new media gravy train, a year ago the Corporation advertised the replacement of one “social media executive” position with five social media executives at the same pay grade – almost £60,000 a year a piece. Before expenses.
The job means nagging hard-working producers (whose jobs and pay have been cut to make way for the Web2.0rhea suits) with “best practice” advice on how to Twitter, blog and handle Commentards. But really the job means drawing up Powerpoints, showing them at meetings, Twittering, drawing up codes of Twittering, and going to lots of New Media conferences. The tagline on one social media executive’s blog is “Talking Is Working”. No, really.
In Darwinian terms, a social media executive is an adaptation that isn’t really fit for any purpose.
But the cuts proposed to the BBC’s web operation for example, if reports are correct, leave many of this new class intact. A quarter of the web’s £112m budget will be cut, but this includes yoof “strands” that encompass the Switch and Blast websites.
Over £600m more has been found for “quality” programming, but there’s less money for imports, which can often be top quality. Radio 6 Music may have only around 25,000 people listening at any one time, but it’s cheap compared to BBC3 TV. BBC3 is supposed to be a ‘feeder’ channel, much like big football clubs have feeder clubs, to introduce and nurture talent before it’s ready for prime time.
But BBC2 used to do that. And BBC3 has the same bureaucracy and cost structure as a big club.
For the first time ever in the BBC’s history a majority of people want an alternative to the current compulsory tax of the Licence Fee. It’s under attack from all directions – for being too commercial, or not commercial enough.
But I have a theory: most people who carp about the Beeb would rather it just produced good stuff. It could start to treat people intelligently and use its resources to describe the wonders and flashpoints of science, the arts and history. When it tries to do so, rather than worry about offending people, or preaching, it can do it quite well.
I reckon that if it could do that consistently, the critics would find themselves in a minority quite quickly. But instead of trying to be amazing, the BBC has become defensive and unadventurous, scored unnecessary own goals by adopting tendentious positions on environmentalism and Europe (to pick two examples: the Post Office closures and Redcar), and added layers of bureaucracy. The most amazing creative output the BBC does today seems to be advertisements for itself. It’s become terrified of its audience.
Instead of becoming lean and mean and focussed on innovation, the BBC can always rely on evoking two myths: what I call the Horlicks myth and the Murdoch myth. The first is that the BBC’s roots in the British national identity are so deep that its funding and objectives can never be questioned. To do so would be like renaming the RAF the Luftwaffe.
The second is that only the BBC stands between national culture and “barbarism”, in the shape of Mr Murdoch. But the BBC has long been a ruthless commercial operator – swallowing up publishers such as Lonely Planet.
Meanwhile Murdoch’s fragile empire lost $5bn last year – the year the Beeb was adding layers of social media executives, and writing enormous producer guidelines about what is a rude word.
This looks like a review with the review part missing.