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.