BBC "Re-structuring": The Advancement of the Populist Agenda

The rapid descent of our political culture into a US-style populist farce (see [url=?q=node/view/223]ISD, 12th March[/url]) is now evidently being helped along by a restructuring of this country’s most definitive cultural institution. For the same party officials who last month talked of boycotting Newsnight in favour of GMTV appear to have found their counterparts right at the heart of the BBC’s decision-making elite. Last week the BBC announced it was to cut 3,780 jobs (19% of its workforce) in its programme-making divisions. The areas most affected will be Factual & Learning programmes, regional programmes and Professional Services programmes. BBC Director General Mark Thompson has described the process as “painful but necessary”. The aim is to save £355 million a year with a the vague commitment “to re-invest [it] in programmes”.

For all its many flaws (and here I’m counting, among other things, its innate, obsequious Royalism, “My Family”, periodic charity fundraisers and the critically indefensible continuation of Dawn French’s career) the BBC has constituted an enormous bulwark against the sort of cheap, popular programming, in terms of entertainment and most importantly news and current affairs, whose monopoly in America has done so much to reduce the bulk of the American public to an infantile, gullible critical mass. It’s hard to see how an attack on learning programmes and regional programmes will constitute an improvement in the service the BBC provides. Rather, this action must be looked at in the context of an ideological shift whereby it is considered within the remit of public service broadcasting to make several new episodes, at £1million-a-pop, of “Doctor Who”, while employing people to make learning programmes is considered some kind of extravagant luxury. A five minute viewing of “Doctor Who” will tell you more about the direction the BBC is heading in than five hours’ reading Mark Thompson’s bewildering apologies. The programme is self-consciously written and produced in the style of American teen hits like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed”, in an obvious, desperate attempt to lure the Heat-reading generation back from T4. It will perhaps not be long before Jeremy Paxman and his difficult questions are also axed from the BBC, and replaced by congenial sycophants in order to lure back viewers who have defected to the more simple commonality of GMTV.

Mr Thompson seems to be cut from the same cloth as his New Labour counterparts; he is pictured in a shirt, but with no tie (a la Richard Branson), every inch the New Millennium entrepreneur/manager, he even talks in the same obscene Newspeak of Whitehall: “All divisions are now finding ways of achieving these savings through genuine improvements rather than crude cuts.” The National Union of Journalists’ general secretary Jimmy Dear gave an accurate appraisal of the situation: staff were being used as “political pawns” in “an unsavoury and grubby deal between government and senior BBC management”.

“How can hard-working staff maintain quality whilst trying to do not only
their own job but that of thousands of their colleagues too?” he said. “The inevitable result is that staff will face burn-out whilst standards and quality will be damaged.”

Union leaders say a ballot for strike action will be called if any redundancies are
compulsory. Luke Crawley, an official at the broadcasting, entertainment and theatre
workers’ union Bectu, said: “This is the worst day in the BBC’s history. I can’t see how the BBC will deliver all Thompson’s promises about new services after ditching so many staff, and life for those who survive is going to be miserable.

“We’re not against an efficient, productive BBC, but many of Thompson’s
proposals are going to make it worse, not better, and that’s what we’ll be
fighting against.”

Mr Thompson previously said he wanted to transform the BBC into a “simpler, more agile and creative digital broadcaster”. In the field of public service broadcasting, people who talk in abstract terms about making things “simpler” are as suspect as politicians who cite “common sense” to justify rightist views. The twin themes have this common connection – they are founded on the erroneous premise that complexity is inherently undesirable. An appeal to simplicity is an appeal to intellectual and moral laziness and is conducive to producing the kind of passive electorate for which the ruling classes are eternally grateful.

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3 Responses to BBC "Re-structuring": The Advancement of the Populist Agenda

  1. Anonymous says:

    Speaking as someone who works for the BBC, I have to agree that Mark Thompson’s changes are not necessarily a good thing.

    However, I think you’ve rather missed the point. The crux of your argument seems to be that Mark Thompson wants to simplify the BBC’s output. This is not the case. What Thompson wants to do is simplify the organisation. He has never stated that he intends to reduce the intellectual and moral worth of the content that is made.

    In your first paragraph you claim that Thompson is making large changes to professional service programming. What Thompson actually announced was that professional services will be cut. Professional services comprise accounts, human resources and other non-content making departments. What Thompson intends to do is streamline these services so that more money goes into programme making – hence raising the quality of the BBC’s output.

    Another of Thompson’s aims is to increase the amount of BBC output that is made by external companies – meaning that more people are competing for licence fee money, and the standard of commissions is higher. But this can only happen if it is easer (i.e. simpler) for the BBC to work with external partners.

    So when Thompson talks about simplicity, he does not mean replacing Jeremy Paxman with Dawn French on Newsnight. He means producing the same high quality output faster and for less money.

    Where I think Thompson is wrong is in assuming that fewer employees means a more efficient organisation. Many teams are already operating on skeleton staff after previous rounds of ‘efficiency’ savings, and sacking staff to make the organsiation more efficient is not scalable ad infinitum. Most in the BBC agree that the organisation would produce better output if some of its processes were simpler. But mass redundancies are not necessarily the way to acheive that.

  2. Anonymous says:

    re: working with external companies

    surely this is privatisation by the back door? said companies won’t want to give their services for nothing, they’ll want something in return. and in the long run we’re looking at advertising etc, and from there it’s a short leap to commercial television.

    i would also question the notion that throwing money at programmes makes them critically any better. this is true up to a point (e.g. a budget of ten thousand pounds will almost always result in a better programme than a budget of say, ten pounds), but it’s less certain the higher you go. for me, this reaks of the same betrayal of the public service ethic in favour of a consumerist outlook, which is sweeping over many areas of life.

    ps on similar lines, have you heard that the police are going to be referring to victims of crime as “customers” as of next year? i hope that was a joke, but nothing really surprises me anymore…

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