November 13, 2012 5:16 pm

The BBC should learn from the Birt era

Group should not confuse personnel change with a renewal of strategy, says James Purnell

In the aftermath of the London Olympics three months ago, there was a clearer consensus in favour of the BBC than at any time in the past 30 years. The financial crisis had freed the BBC from the neoliberal swaddle in which its critics sought to wrap it. No longer did it have to justify itself merely as the solution to failures in a market. Instead, the BBC could make its own case: that it made great programmes more widely available and less expensively than could be done via any other funding method. The Olympics made this theoretical argument real. The Leveson inquiry reminded Britain of the benefits of an impartial part of the media.

The next director-general must make the case for the BBC all over again. Critics, for example the FT’s Janan Ganesh, argue that it must become smaller and cheaper. But this neglects how, in today’s media, the BBC’s role is more important than ever. There is a great danger that it will reach for solutions that will make another egregious editorial mistake more likely rather than less.

We are approaching a world in which the BBC may be as much an editor as a broadcaster – our guide to the best of culture, debate, news and entertainment. The iPlayer has positioned the BBC to become that editor but the potential for it to be a trusted guide and the changes that it will need to make to its programmes are only just starting to be explored.

In this new world, opinion is cheap. Free, even. Truth, on the other hand, is expensive. When Twitter can wrongly identify people as cruelly and stupidly and quickly as this, we need a standard we can trust. When many newspapers mix up editorialising and news, we need information we know has been checked. When everyone is a blogger, we need to know what is important. That’s why we need the BBC more than ever and why these mistakes have been so damaging.

We have been here before. Twenty years ago, a new director-general, John Birt, took over. One of his predecessors had been forced to resign, the BBC was under pressure from a Tory government, with many in it pushing for privatisation. Some shows were so stale it was hard to see why they got any public money.

Over the next decade, the BBC was saved by Lord Birt’s boldness. (Disclosure: between 1995 and 1997, I was its head of corporate planning.) It would have been easy to play it safe, to avoid mistakes, lest they incense the BBC’s enemies. But instead, it reviewed its programmes, transforming Radio 1 as well as its output of drama and entertainment.

Rather than wait and see what the internet would bring, as ITV essentially did, the BBC rode the wave of a country surfing online. As people got an internet subscription, the BBC was there. As they bought their Sky dish, the BBC was there.

The next director-general needs to learn from the 1990s. That means rebuilding relationships with government, business and, most importantly, the public. It means ensuring the whole organisation can live the BBC’s values of trustworthiness and integrity. It means becoming the best place in the world to make programmes. It means building a cohesive team at the top of the organisation.

But it also means renewal. The BBC has been living off its 1990s’ strategy – be everywhere, have channels and websites for everyone. The risk now is that it has an employee for everyone, too. The corporation should not confuse a change of personnel and a few new squares on an organigram with a renewal of its strategy and output.

Does the BBC really need another structural overhaul? The problem with such changes is that you start off with a structure that could be better and you end up with one that could also be better. Meanwhile, you spend years with jostling managers taking their eye off the programmes.

Does the BBC need another management layer between the director-general and programme makers, as some have suggested? The case for a separate editor-in-chief rests on the idea that George Entwistle resigned as director-general because it was impossible for him to monitor all the BBC’s output. But this kind and talented man resigned for management failings, not editorial ones: failing to get a grip in a crisis and losing control of his public relations.

Ultimately, the tragedy is not about the BBC, or any institution. It is about the terrible suffering of a group of young people, over many years, and a culture that was complicit in its perpetuation.

The reasons why the BBC was the solution to Leveson have not disappeared. These have been a terrible few weeks. But the BBC has had crises like this before, and its own history teaches it how it can now recover, through courageous journalism and bold strategy.

The writer is a former UK secretary of state for culture, media and sport

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