Industrial action 

24 May 2005

The Scotsman on the BBC strike

Britain in the 21st century is a very different place to the Britain I grew up in. This probably sounds obvious, but the differences continue to creep up on me and surprise me.

Perhaps one of the most obvious, to a television historian, anyway, is that the number of TV programmes that go out live has dropped to almost nothing. So when the BBC strike hit live programmes, the net result seemed to be the loss of half an hour of news and the gain of an extra episode of “My Family”.

The least obvious, and therefore the most shocking, is the reaction of people to the causes of the strike. In the days when industrial unrest was common place (comparatively), the issues behind a strike – any strike – would have been debated on air and in print. Generally, even the right-wing newspapers would show sympathy if the strike was over mass redundancies, sell-offs and management fads imposed without consultation on a very efficient and dedicated workforce.

No longer. Instead, the Daily Telegraph, for instance, takes the opportunity to call for the rump workforce who will be left at the BBC to consider leaving the doomed organisation anyway, suggesting that they are sat around with little to do, soaking up “our” licence money.

Other commentators, even here at 7Days, see no problem with mass redundancies at the BBC – as if any organisation can just lose 4000 people and be better, as if those who lose their jobs will just walk into another, as if the pension rights, job security, joy of working for the BBC and hundreds of other minor benefits can be dumped and none of the victims will mind.

I mind.

The Director-General has behaved in a high-handed, imperious way with his staff. He is seeking to impose what the Government want upon the BBC without consulting the people who make the organisation the best broadcaster in the world. He is, and I’m sorry for the strong language and potential libel, no better than John Birt.

The BBC survived the Hutton whitewash with a huge swell of sympathy from the viewers and support coming from all sides (except New Labour). It was actually in a better position after Hutton to fight off the small-minded knuckle-cracking of Ms Jowell than before. The BBC may have needed reform, who knows. But the reform could have been evolution rather than revolution; the strength of the BBC used to better the BBC.

Instead, the new(-ish) D-G has marched in and started to do exactly what the petty Ms Jowell wanted – butchering the organisation, turning it into something that the government would like to see, rather than something the viewers would like to watch. Stupid boy.

In doing so, he’s managed to re-ignite the debate on the licence fee and the BBC’s future. The vultures begin to circle again, having so recently been seen off.

The new BBC that Mark Thompson is seeking to impose on the workers and the viewers will not be more efficient. It will not be better. It will not preserve the best and lose the worst (quite the reverse).

It will, however, make it much easier to privatise the BBC a few years down the line. And for those fools who think a shareholder-owned BBC will be a commercial BBC, think again. This government is too stupid to leave well enough alone, but not stupid enough to be radical. We’ll be left paying the licence fee… direct to the new shareholders.

If I, sat in an office in Yorkshire, can see this, you’d think Thompson could as well. Either he’s not seeing it – bad; or he sees this scenario fully – worse.

Either way, if you like quality television and like the BBC (the two are the same thing), you need to support the strike. The survival of the BBC, the protection of the jobs of thousands are important enough to miss a few days worth of news programmes.

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