BBC on brink of internal war

Staff accuse ‘arrogant’ new trustees of standing in the way of radical reform

By Tim Luckhurst


The cuts endorsed by the BBC’s controversial new governing body, the BBC Trust, have started to bite. On Monday management briefed unions on planned cuts in news coverage, intensifying fears about the future of flagship shows including BBC 1’s one and six o’clock bulletins.

With mass redundancies looming, the pressure on director-general Mark Thompson is intense, but senior colleagues say the structure of the corporation has never been less able to support its leader.

“No sitting director-general of the BBC has been sacked by the chairman who appointed him,” said one of Mr Thompson’s closest allies. “But Michael Grade has gone, and Mark is worried that he might not be in the post this time next year. Sir Michael Lyons intervenes constantly and intensely. It is very different from the days of the old board of governors.”

Sir Michael, the one-time Bennite Labour councillor and former chief executive of Birmingham City Council, accepted the chairmanship of the trust in April. BBC managers describe trustees’ behaviour in recent months as arrogant. An executive complained: “They are strutting around asserting themselves in that awful way people do when they are trying to work out what they are for.”

Supporters of the director-general fear tension between management and regulators will destroy the united front the BBC needs to survive its travails. They warn that the corporation is too fragile for a big clash between trustees and management, but fear confrontation is looming.

“The BBC is going through some of the biggest challenges it has ever faced,” said John Whittingdale, chairman of the House of Commons Media Select Committee. “You have the crisis of trust over issues such as the Queen documentary and Blue Peter and at the same time Mr Thompson is setting out his strategic plan. It is inevitable that the BBC Trust will take an active interest, but it should not intervene before management decisions are made.”

Under the old system managers managed and governors defended their decisions. The trustees are less docile. They have views and they are constitutionally entitled to express them on behalf of the licence-payer. Thompson supporters fear he may carry the can for decisions he did not make.

Observers were surprised by the “salami-slicing” strategy Mr Thompson calls “Delivering Creative Future”. The joke inside the BBC is that it is not creative and there is no future. But such humour disguises concern that the DG’s freedom has been curtailed. His supporters blame the trust for insisting that the BBC must continue making programmes for every taste despite a huge funding shortfall.

“It is an unsustainable position in the digital era,” said a top BBC journalist. “If there is no market segment from which the BBC can legitimately withdraw, then we are condemned to spread resources too thinly. Mark’s instinct was to be radical. The trust made that impossible.”

Adrian Sanders MP, Liberal Democrat member of the select committee, agreed that something appeared to have diluted Mr Thompson’s radical instincts. “Members of the committee from all parties were very surprised that the BBC did not come up with a proposal to dispose of some channels. There was a real expectation that it would.”

Mr Thompson had encouraged that expectation. In March he said that the BBC would “stop doing certain things” and emphatically rejected salami-slicing departmental budgets. Why did he retreat? Insiders blame the trust, which, they say, is intensely conservative and determined to preserve all the corporation’s services, no matter how limited its budget.

But it should surprise nobody that the trust is actively interventionist. A trust spokeswoman said that was not how the programme of cuts was devised. “Trustees tested and challenged what the BBC management put forward. The trust has been very independent in its thinking. It starts from a different perspective from its predecessor. The trust represents a different interest from the governors: the licence-payers.”