Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Happy birthday BBC. Though it probably won't be.

Happy Anniversary to the BBC! Its first broadcast was 90 years ago today.
Ninety years today.
As lively as ever but short of self-confidence just at the moment

They marked the anniversary with a historic event today: all radio stations broadcast exactly the same three-minute compilation of random BBC sounds at 5:33. Apparently, they’ve never previously all done exactly the same thing at the same time. Shame it was so utterly uninspiring.

Maybe that’s just part of the problem at the BBC at the moment. The strange little exercise at 5:33 came after an hour-long introspective investigation of what’s gone wrong at the corporation, and at the way politicians look likely to make the most of the present scandals to extend their influence over it. 
The two best points made in that discussion were, firstly, that the scandal is about two BBC Newsnight programmes which were, admittedly, dire. But that’s out of 26,000 hours of news broadcast each year. No commercial organisation would fixate that much on the two failures, however major. They’d just work to fix them without donning hairshirts.

And the other key point? There’s been a 25% cut in management costs at the BBC this year. Where before a powerful Deputy Director General looked after editorial problems, and a Communications director made sure the Director General didn’t make himself look stupid in the media, today the posts are vacant or off the board.

Result? No-one made sure Newsnight’s editorial blunder was avoided. And the Director General gave a series of interviews in which he made a complete fool of himself and had to resign.

This is just the latest in a series of mishaps in which understaffed or overstressed public sector institutions, following massive cuts in the name of austerity, have cocked up monumentally.

The Department of Transport made a pig’s ear of trying to let the contract to run rail services in the North West to someone other than Virgin Rail, the present incumbents. The result? They had to call Virgin back in to bail them out. And the Environment people failed to react to Ash Die-back disease on time so we’re likely to lose the bulk of our Ash Trees over the next few years.

Sad developments both. But the BBC is a treasured institution, second only to the NHS as far as I’m concerned. If the present tribulations leave it more than ever exposed to predation by politicians, then a particularly wretched step has just been taken.

I’d love to be able to wish the BBC a happy ninetieth. But I have a terrible feeling it may not be quite the joyous moment we might all have wished for them.

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