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The institutional paranoia of the BBC and its unsure future

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Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Daily Mail, James Murdoch, News International, Patrick Smith, Rupert Murdoch, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, Today programme, BBC, Broadcast


In the midst of a BBC crisis, I remember this exchange:

"Just give me the facts - how bad is it for us?" asked the deputy director general from the back of his chauffeur-driven car. "Do we need to get on the front foot or is this just another Daily Mail hatchet job? What action should we take?"

 

I said it was nothing to worry about. Stories about wasteful spending in the BBC were commonplace in the Mail and Sun and any organisation as big as Aunty has in-built cost irregularities.

"Ok, anything else I should worry about? I have a meeting with the DG in 10 minutes. Is there anything that could be damaging I should know about?"

Firstly, a confession. Not long after I came to London in the middle of the 2000s I went for a job at the BBC, as a junior PR and communications officer for the Director General's office. Needless to say, I didn't get the job and happily, a career writing about the BBC, its rivals and peers beckoned.

The above passage was just a small section of a roleplay exercise. Candidates had 20 minutes to read through various newspaper cuttings from a single day some weeks previously and prioritise them in terms of importance. Tabloid and mid-market papers featured heavily.

After studying them and making notes while sat alone in a characterless White City office, an actor pretending to be the deputy DG rings, asking to know "what's going on in today's papers".

The process offered a glimpse into the level of paranoia and anxiety the corporation deals with on a daily basis. Interview questions centered on how well I'd cope in a crisis. I've had good relations with BBC press people as a hack - but that day seemed like an exercise in practising paranoia. Always answering the question: "How bad is it for us?" The BBC knows its existence is not certain.

I thought of this immediately while watching the defenestration of director general George Entwistle on Saturday night.

I cringed when he admitted on Radio 4's Today programme, to the corporation's chief radio rottweiller John Humphreys, that he had not read and was not aware of the Guardian's story on Friday, outlining the amateurish flaws in Newsnight and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism investigation into child abuse in North Wales, which falsely implicated a Tory grandee in ill health, long faded from public life. Where were the PR people in all this, I thought? And I wasn't the only one.

 

Aha. So those cuts do have an effect. BBC initiatives are often described as Orwellian with their Soviet-style slogans and corporate positivity. Without any irony, plans to save £700 million a year by 2017 were labelled Delivering Quality First.

The BBC is a corporation stalked by paranoia and it's in real danger of losing its confidence and its role in public life. Its corporate communications machine is designed to justify its unique funding arrangements but also to stave off heavy criticism from private sector rivals on a daily basis. But as the events of the past month have served to confirm, this fear is entirely justified. The BBC's survival in its current form is far from secure. Former DG Mark Thompson made clear in his parting shot to colleagues, warning that the next licence fee settlement in 2015-16 will be among its most difficult.

Keeping 16,858 staff in jobs isn't going to be easy and there have long been calls from commercial media leaders to curb the power and funding of the Beeb. As James Murdoch put it in 2009, commercial operators think the BBC is "throttling" the market, especially online (though he was denounced by his own sister at the same annual lecture, earlier this year).

BBC death on the press wishlist?

Yes it's bad. But don't listen too closely to the gnashing teeth of Fleet Street's hounds, however. Many newspaper journalists see this scandal as an opportunity to get one back on the Beeb for its enthusiastic reporting of News International's phone hacking charges.

Similarly, Westminster MPs - still smarting after the introduction of a fussy new body scrutinising every last expense claim - are loath to pass up any opportunity to curb the interests of commercial and state-funded media, the latter being openly accused by Conservatives of harbouring left-wing biases.

One imagines that Rupert Murdoch's idea of a reorganisation doesn't have much in common with that of BBC staff and supporters.

 

Emily Bell is right to say the Hutton Inquiry overshadowed a BBC crisis of equal or larger magnitude. Others are right to warn that the BBC's unique place in the media economy is under threat.

That was true before the Savile and child abuse scandals, but it's in closer focus now. Mark Thompon's agreement to cut 16 percent of the corporation's annual funding from 2012 to 2017 may look like a belter of a deal in years and decades to come.

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