Thompson’s tactical errors 

23 August 2012

Now that the BBC’s Mark Thompson is finally heading out the door in the direction of the New York Times, he has a few choice words for his successor as a parting gift that warns of further trouble to come if the TV licence fee continues to be frozen in real terms. However the advice he gives also reveals what critics claim to be his biggest weakness.

Put simply, if parts of the BBC are now “getting very, very close to the edge”, then Thompson himself is solely guilty as charged of getting the corporation into that predicament; he cannot blame anyone or anything else (government, the Murdochs, etc.) for this. The buck stopped with Thompson.

It may be true that the rushed 2010 licence fee settlement was heavily botched by both parties as well as being effectively bounced into existence under duress, but the outcome of that highly contentious settlement only aided to emphasise previous strategic errors.

Thompson’s first tactical error was to promise major changes (such as the move to Salford) early on without realising that the BBC could later end up being press-ganged into accepting such changes in tandem with further cutbacks being imposed on them simultaneously (as what ultimately did happen).

Somehow the expression “promise less than you deliver” seemed to be lost on Thompson, as he seemed to promise the earth (relocation as well as massive cost savings not made at the expense of quality) in exchange for relatively little. Only goodwill and a chain of fortuitous events averted disaster in the end.

He may have been under intense pressure to demonstrate the real-world value of the BBC in the face of accusations such as the Jonathan Ross salary scandal, but moving departments to Salford did not properly answer underlying questions that had been lurking in the background, which leads us onto Thompson’s second tactical error.

Concentrating resources on programme making instead of wasteful administration may have been a “no-brainer” on paper, but that strategy tended to ignore a fundamental administrative component in relation to the BBC’s relationship with the outside world, namely its public relations department.

Arguably the BBC needs good PR more than virtually anything else, especially during a time when it’s under heavy scrutiny and whilst making fundamental changes in the way it operates. If the BBC’s PR department had been on the ball, then what would have been relatively minor incidents (Crowngate, Sachsgate, etc.) would most likely have stayed that way.

Then there’s Thompson’s fourth error of judgement. Instead of investing more money into PR, education and training as a consequence, the kneejerk response to the PR nightmare was instead to read the riot act to BBC staff and to employ additional staff in order to enforce stricter guidelines.

That form of damage limitation may have worked short-term but did nothing to inspire staff confidence, added paperwork and ended up deterring comedy writers and others involved in ‘risky’ productions that might fall foul of the compliancy police, causing several of them to run into the arms of BSkyB with its open chequebook (Spy, Stella, Trollied, etc.).

Mistake five came when it transpired that real cutbacks had to be made, what seemed like the wrong answers were being proposed as a solution; 6 Music was the radio station initially nominated for closure in a badly-structured document which seemed to be written by people who barely understood the station’s intrinsic public service value.

Moving bits of 6 Music to Radio 2 would have also impacted on an earlier pledge to keep Radio 2’s average listener age “as old as possible” so as not to conflict with commercial radio’s theoretical “heartland audience”; no mention of this failing was included in strategy review documents and no attention was actively drawn to any potential downsides.

The end result was, therefore, success for those wanting to keep 6 Music on-air combined with a massive increase in listener numbers as a consequence; two own-goals for the price of one as a result of what appeared to be a totally out-of-touch management team at the BBC.

(By way of contrast, at least the proposed Asian Network radio station closure had a form of coherent strategy attached to it, namely increased local radio networking to make up for the deficit, even if reversed as part of the subsequent change of heart in relation to local radio restructuring.)

BBC local radio was next in line for proposed cutbacks, but yet again the suggestion was to cut back services as opposed to selectively developing them; the BBC’s strengths in providing something that the commercial sector couldn’t or was unwilling to provide were being ignored whilst it still churned out identikit daytime TV programming seemingly without justification.

And nobody was publicly attempting to reconcile such actions.

Mark Thompson’s “Delivering Quality First” pledge seemed laughable at times given the depth and nature of many of the proposed cutbacks; it’s rare that you can legitimately sacrifice something without an impact being felt by someone somewhere, and more often than not you still got the feeling that not enough management cutbacks were being made anyway.

Avoiding conflict with commercial services (television, radio, online, etc.) was another recurring theme in recent years, but all we got from the BBC under Mark Thompson were pledges to trim back content (webpages, local radio services, etc.) across the board just to keep people quiet as opposed to providing services where required, adding real public value.

Mark Thompson’s management team never successfully nominated any existing service for closure, which in itself is a two-edged sword; failure to effectively close anything is either a weakness or a strength if enough savings can be found elsewhere to ensure survival of all existing services. But the latter came at a significant cost.

Which brings us back to the present situation and the BBC’s current dilemma. It’s true that we still have a BBC that has all of its TV and radio channels largely intact but all of this has come at a price in terms of flexibility and ultimate value, because another unfavourable licence fee settlement will result in major sacrifices having to be made.

Of course it hasn’t all been bad news for the BBC. The Olympics may have been a much-needed PR victory for the corporation but the long term effects of recent DQF cutbacks are only just beginning to bite, so next year’s drama and comedy offerings in particular will reveal just how much has been sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Sunday 19 May 2024