Talk tough, act tough at the BBC

March 20, 2007

The BBC suffers from revelations of dodgy financial practices in phone-in shows. Meanwhile its leadership talks about taking tough measures after its licence fee settlement with the Government. But will the tough talk lead to tough actions?

At the moment, the corporation, affectionately known as Auntie, is struggling to shape its future in one of the most highly competitive of business markets. Events of the last few months illustrate the leadership challenges it faces. Let’s see how the leadership has responded.

In January, Tessa Jowell announced the news of the licence fee agreement providing a 3% rise for each of the next two years.

BBC director-general Mark Thompson was reported as saying

“It’s a disappointing settlement. It doesn’t mean we can’t carry on with our exciting plans for the future, but it means we face some quite tough choices”

One such tough choice, hinted at during the fee negotiations, was funding the proposed move of some services to Salford, in Greater Manchester. In her statement Tessa Jowell had made it clear that the fee would allow the planned move of key departments to Salford. The newly constituted BBC trust (Board of Governors) confirmed this to be the case

What are the tough choices?
Two months later, this week, the DG was interviewed again. I didn’t see the TV broadcast on Sunday AM today so I have to reply on the BBC’s own report. The dodgy phone-in tactics earned a contrite apology. He went on the muse on consequences of the new license fee on the Corporation’s plans.

“Having a licence fee at the level that’s been set means we will have to make some tough choices …I don’t believe that you’re going to see a sudden burst of repeats on BBC1. We know that the public expect outstanding, original programmes on our main television networks … On the other hand, we are going to have to make some difficult choices about where to put our priorities”

Yes, George, you said that in January.

The compiler of this report struggled as well, noting:

While Mr Thompson did not say what “tough decisions” the corporation may face, experts suggest it could lead to the BBC cutting back on many of its plans for the future. Among them is the switch-over from analogue to digital television and the move of many staff and programmes to Salford in Greater Manchester.

Let’s see if we’ve got it right

Tessa Jowell says in January that the licence fee rise will permit the key strategic initiatives that the BBC were planning. The Board of the BBC agrees. The DG says there will have to be tough choices made.

Two months later in March the DG makes the easy choice and apologizes for dodgy phone-in tactics on his watch. Then, looking ahead, he repeats the January message, returning to the need for tough decisions.

The BBC reporter suggested that the tough decisions included impementing the move to Salford. Assuming the reporter was capturing current beliefs at the BBC, (even if they are just picked up from the grapevine), there has been no resolution of the tough decisions mentioned in interviews by the DG.

Leadership implications

It’s easier to talk tough than act tough. Saying you are going to get tough is even less convincing if you have to repeat it without further embellishment. Having to decide what to decide is not a nice place for a leader to be.


The Turnbull attack : A big clunking blow for Gordon Brown?

March 20, 2007

Is it not curious that the former head of the civil service should launch a fierce attack on the Chancellor in an interview that appeared in the Financial Times two days before his budget speech? Might the article illustrate wider leadership issues, as Tony Blair prepares to relinquish the Premiership? To what degree might Lord Turnbull and the FT be seen as engaging in political skirmishes?

An article in the Financial Times yesterday made wider headlines today. The headline seems slightly more strident than those we are accustomed to from the Pink Lady of financial journalism. Former Whitehall chief slams ‘Stalinist’ Brown’it almost shouted.

The Former Whitehall chief is Andrew Lord Turnbull, now a cross-bench peer. His political contributions in that role have recently been confined to three measured speeches, one on proposed reform of Government statistics, and the other two on the Turner report. In one of the Pension speeches he informed the house of his interests, not just as a novice pensioner, but as an advisor to the consulting firm Booze Allen Hamilton, and a wannabe man from the Pru.

In an earlier role he had spent four years as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury working with (to, for, or on behalf of) Gordon Brown. In the FT article, he assessed Gordon as exhibiting

“Stalinist ruthlessness… There has been an absolute ruthlessness with which Gordon has played the denial of information as an instrument of power.”

The interview makes good reading as ammunition in the forthcoming Cameron-Brown battles for the Premiership. These matches are being set up as a two-team tussle between gifted and flexible David, and Powerful but dour Gordon. You might think this resembles another Premiership battle between Manchester United and Chelsea Football clubs. I couldn’t possibly comment.

An unnoticed possibility

The BBC reporting this morning suggested an analysis that had not extended to a close reading of the original FT article. A discussion (on BBC five live) sounded as if it was a little chat, based on the Corporation’s own synoptic news summary of the FT story. It was suggested that the Noble Lord may be so worried about a Gordon Brown Premiership that he had felt compelled to make a calculated statement to the Press at an appropriately damaging moment.

I have been unable to find the answer to an important question. When did the interview take place? The on-line FT version does not tell us. The critical scene-setting sentence ran

‘In an interview with the Financial Times, Lord Turnbull said …’ But was it said ‘In an interview yesterday..’, or was it said ‘In an interview for our post-Budget retrospective on Gordon’s ten years as Chancellor, to appear on Thursday..’

This opens up possibilities beyond the BBC’s suggestion. The FT might have gone for two bites of the cherry, created a pithy and newsworthy story within a background interview for a broader historical analysis of Gordon Brown’s record as Chancellor.

Does this matter?

Only to the extent in which it might help us understand why a vivid description of leadership style appears as a new story. Its novelty lies in the messenger rather than the message, which is pretty much the line being taken by Gordon’s political foes – on both sides of the House.