Whatever happened to Auntie?
One of the prime casualties of 2012 was the BBC's reputation as a solid and dependable institution devoted to nature documentaries and unbiassed news. It was revealed as a demented bureaucracy, run by a management of grasping kleptocrats, harbouring sex criminals and using public money to defame innocent pensioners by calling them paedophiles.
OK, I exaggerate. The BBC is still a great institution; public service ethos, cultural guardian, David Attenborough and so on. If nothing else, the corporation has shown itself to be hopeless at broadcasting its strengths as well as its weaknesses. At one stage it seemed as if every BBC news programme was investigating other BBC news programmes. Shoals of BBC reporters were standing outside BBC premises waiting to doorstep BBC employees about the BBC. We lost track of the number of investigations launched over Newsnight, Lord McAlpine and Jimmy Savile. A new word entered the dictionary of infamy when we learned that lots of senior BBC executives were being "recused" from their jobs. Which seems to mean suspended without prejudice so they can be given large sums of money.
We now learn from the National Audit Office that 200 managers have received pay-offs of more than £100,000 in the past three years. The public spending watchdog has described the BBC's severance packages of up to £900,000, as "excessively generous". This news made me particularly annoyed because when I left the BBC some years ago I didn't get a brass farthing, or even a bronze bawbee. This was presumably because I hadn't been guilty of gross incompetence, defamation, sexual malpractice or sloppy journalism. I'll know better next time.
The remuneration practices of BBC senior management – most of whom seem to earn more than the Prime Minister – has been a bitter insult to the thousands of BBC employees who do not get large salaries for sitting on committees droning on about imagineering the blue-sky challenges going forward. The BBC is not a highly paid organisation, compared with other professions. Most BBC producers – especially in Scotland – accept relatively modest pay as the price for doing a job they love. The BBC also produces an astonishing number of programmes – look at the iPlayer – most of which are of very high quality, and makes them very cheaply. But somehow the BBC appears to be completely incapable of getting this message across.
And this is precisely the problem with allowing management pay to get out of control. Exactly the same is true of other public bodies such as Scottish universities and local government, where senior management have started paying themselves big bucks. Their greed undermines the moral integrity of the body they lead and exposes it to public contempt. No public employee in Scotland, I believe, should earn more than the First Minister – for the very obvious reason that the FM is effectively the CEO of the entire public sector. It is morally repugnant for public servants to use granny's licence fee to pay themselves banker-style salaries.
Of course, the counter-argument is that you get what you pay for: if the BBC doesn't pay senior staff at levels comparable to private sector organisations you will get incompetent staff. This is bogus and demonstrably untrue in the BBC, where the really important work is done by legions of producers and directors earning relatively modest salaries. They are the creative ones who make the programmes: it is the senior management, with their telephone-number salaries, who have cocked things up majorly from going forward. The only thing these people seem to be any good at is covering their own backsides.
The long-awaited Pollard report into the Newsnight/Jimmy Savile affair – sneakily published just days before Christmas – confirmed this fish rots from its head. The BBC "lacked leadership and co-ordination ... management completely incapable of dealing [with the crisis]". Mind you, in true BBC fashion, none of those criticised lost their jobs for this management fiasco. Some executives were moved sideways and one retired. Of course, George Entwistle, the top guy, had already resigned, but that was largely as a result of his "I was out" interview on Today with John Humphrys. And of course he got a £450,000 pay-off for not being able to do his job.
The most worrying aspect of the BBC omniscandal is that it has damaged public service broadcasting at a time when we need it more than ever. I should not now be reviewing the BBC's annus horribilis, but that of the tabloid press, and in particular the News International titles. Most of the year was dominated by the Leveson hearings into phone hacking and other misdemeanours. Lord Leveson's call for "statutory underpinning" of the press could take us back 300 years to the days when newspapers were licensed by the state. Yes, the press only has itself to blame; for the collapse of standards, for bullying and harassment, for an inability to admit it gets things wrong. Above all, for failing to set up a credible system of self-regulation.
But what is deeply troubling now, at a time when the serious press is in deep financial trouble, is that both the public and the private sources of information and opinion could soon be under far greater Government scrutiny and control than ever before. The BBC is cowed, insecure and run effectively by a Government appointee – Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust. The press faces regulation by a board of judges, lawyers and retired bureaucrats sitting on a Press Standards Council and interpreting a code of conduct set by act of Parliament. In Scotland, this code will effectively be written by the Government.
Again, the press only has itself to blame, and there is manifestly a public demand for regulation. Hopefully, some form of credible self-regulation will be forthcoming in 2013, but I wouldn't bet my severance package on it. The people who will benefit most from this new regulatory environment will inevitably be the bureaucrats, who will revel in the opportunity to manage the new regulatory environment with all its codes and systems, report backs and reviews. A risk-averse, shiny-bottom paradise in which journalism will be regarded as just too much trouble. Happy New Year.
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