And now: Not the BBC news

Tedious tittle-tattle fills an overlong account of recent Beeb history that ignores hard facts, says Brian Lapping
November 12, 2004

This book about the management of the BBC has several problems.

First, it is massive - about ten times longer than its content justifies.

Second, it is self-congratulatory: scarcely a page passes without Georgina Born, a Cambridge University sociologist - often "...", frequently "GB" - telling us she attended a meeting, asked a question, received praise.

Third, it makes excessive claims. Its subtitle, "Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC", suggests a broad canvas and profound analysis. But the reality is a succession of gripes from middle-rank BBC people, containing "facts", some true, some contentious, many false, but none checked by the author. She just quotes them verbatim, as though she were compiling a file of transcripts.

What is worst about the book is that it repeatedly fails the test at which the BBC usually succeeds: GB goes to meetings and regurgitates her notes when any half-competent BBC factual researcher or drama script editor would have told the boss: "Sorry. Nothing worth telling happened."

Rarely less than a paragraph, often more than two pages, GB's diary extracts go roughly as follows: "I went to see the head of nuts and bolts, Larry. He said I couldn't attend the departmental meeting the next day. But - oooh, I'm clever! - I talked him round. At the meeting in Larry's office, he tried to explain the new scheme. It didn't make much sense to me, and the staff didn't seem to understand it either. Larry said he was sure it would be OK. Some of the staff seemed unhappy. He tried to explain it again and said it would work fine."

Her interview transcripts are even more tedious. After reading two or three hundred of them, I was inspired with the thought that, had I possessed a fire, this was the sort of book one should burn. Why? Because to publish tittle-tattle largely from disaffected former BBC employees is an insult to one of the most important episodes in the recent cultural history of the world.

Yes, of course the major changes upset employees. And that is worth reporting. But to write a useful analytical history - which this book purports to be - it is necessary to explain why the major changes happened.

And not only does GB fail to explain, she makes no serious attempt to understand.

So let me tell her. Before the reforms of the 1990s, the BBC had become bloated and careless. One act of carelessness - recounted by former managing director Will Wyatt in his book The Fun Factory: A Life in the BBC - was to lose £38 million. Yes. They just lost it. No idea where.

Dear me. Must have a hole in my pocket. Margaret Thatcher, who was then Prime Minister, thought the BBC needed teaching a few lessons.

Those lessons were bound to be painful. Some who suffered the pain have persuaded GB that it was outrageous for them to be told to act responsibly with taxpayers' money. She firmly takes their side and mocks the accountants, consultants and managers who were brought in to impose discipline. Consequently, much of the book is an old-fashioned agitprop rant. Worse, it is boringly familiar. Half the people who spoke to GB have long ago published their woes in The Guardian . The other half leaked them to Private Eye .

Contrary to GB's naive view, the BBC could not have survived in its old form. Of all the state monopolies created in the 20th century, it was probably the best. But by the 1990s, spectrum scarcity, which had justified having a single state broadcaster, was over. The air was fertile with new channels.

The Beeb had to become less bloated. GB simply does not see that at all.

The Beeb also had to give the public more of what it wanted. On this issue, she flutters to and fro. Some of those she quotes favour change. But in the bits of commentary between the quotes, she repeatedly states that the BBC should have gone on giving money and long-term security to those who grumbled into her tape recorder.

But many of these moaners were no longer the creative geniuses she supposes ("genius" is a word GB would do well to use less often). They were laid off by the BBC because they were past their best. In the 1990s, I met quite a few whose creative years were over, but whose big office, secretary, salary and expense account endured. (Some, bless them, took me out to lunch and told me exactly the stories they have now told GB.) She devotes endless pages to the iniquity of "the independents quota" and "producer choice". I won't bore you, as she does, with contentious descriptions of these mechanisms by which the BBC was forced to come to terms with the new broadcasting environment. Her denunciation of them is like the rants of "Red Robbo", the shop steward at British Leyland, who, 20 years earlier, won attention with his plea that the real world could go hang, protecting jobs was all that mattered.

Contrary to GB's view, John Birt and his apparatchiks saved the BBC. When Thatcher was thinking of closing it down - and had evidence of waste, loss, incompetence and arrogance aplenty to spur her on - Birt and Co imposed discipline, kept most of the best of the creative staff, cut out millions of pounds of waste, won an increased licence fee from the Iron Lady herself, and left the BBC well placed to win another charter renewal (as it is now about to do).

If all the moaners GB quotes and praises were right, the BBC would by now be a creative ruin. But it is not. It is counter-attacking the digital competition, has launched new channels, built up the most visited website in Britain and shown commercial daring in backing Freeview (the only serious competition Rupert Murdoch's Sky has ever faced). The BBC has come back fighting. GB knows all this. She just cannot see that it negates her thesis.

I have many complaints about the BBC, some of them backed by precise documentation of a kind GB never attempts. Have you had the experience of knowing a bit about a subject and reading a piece of journalism that gets every aspect of it substantially wrong? Well, that is how it is with this book.

She has an excuse. The dust-jacket describes her, inter alia , as an anthropologist. The old story of the member of a tribe who learnt to read, worked his way through the anthropologist's "participant observation" and fell about laughing suddenly rings true.

Eventually, GB reveals herself. Yet another diary entry, this one about a visit to an official of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "I'm here to explore whether there is any way my skills can be of service higher up the policy chain." The official has seen her work and shows no interest.

She is determined. He asks: "Who do you know?" - meaning that among the Labour policy wonks, someone might take a shine to her: the Institute of Public Policy Research, perhaps, or Demos. And here comes the revelation:

"I'd offered my BBC report to both to publish, but neither wanted it."

Well, they were both right.

Brian Lapping is an independent television documentary maker. He was responsible for a six-part BBC series The Death of Yugoslavia , described by Georgina Born in Uncertain Vision as "the highest of Himalayan peaks".

Tedious tittle-tattle fills an overlong account of recent Beeb history that ignores hard facts, says Brian Lapping

Author - Georgina Born Secker and Warburg
Pages - 564
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 436 20562 9

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