UK: Favourite Auntie gets a facelift.

UK: Favourite Auntie gets a facelift. - Michael Checkland, director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation and a Companion of the British Institute of Management, is trying to change the BBC's reputation for stodginess and secretiveness.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Michael Checkland, director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation and a Companion of the British Institute of Management, is trying to change the BBC's reputation for stodginess and secretiveness.

"Unmanageable, profligate, bureaucratic, uncommunicative." If you believed certain sections of the press, you might consider these to be statements of fact, rather than opinions, about the BBC. As Hazlitt wrote: "Prejudice is never easy unless it can pass itself off as reason."

In fact any outsider scrutinising the BBC's record since 1987 would see a quite different picture. Such an observer would see an organisation funded by the public's money, eagerly getting to grips with fundamental change in a period of increased competition, financial restraints, turbulence in its core product - broadcasting - and a management as vigorously committed to encouraging creative excellence as cost efficiency.

For three years from 1988 the licence income was linked to the retail prices index: in real terms that meant a squeeze at the very time when the broadcasting landscape was changing radically. The changes which the BBC had to face were comparable to those of other major companies and market leaders simultaneously facing reduced real income, increased competition and costs, with the added ingredient of frequent external reviews and performance appraisals. The objectives have been the same as those of many other companies steering their business through a period of cultural and market change, while seeking to maintain a necessary level of stability. That is why since early 1987 the BBC has put away the begging bowl and been seen, in deed and attitude, to be helping itself.

The fact that the BBC is a 70-year-old institution meant that it had to face some highly complex management problems. A change in direction means a change in the traditional culture: that is why external and internal communications have always been high priorities on its agenda.

Probably the most significant structural change was the merging of news and current affairs activities right across television and radio into a single directorate. This ended artificial rivalries and duplication and energised programme output in this most vital of areas. A highly significant development in my early days was setting up of the Policy and Planning Unit.

Other priorities included the consolidation of regional broadcasting into a single directorate, responsible for all television and radio in the national and English regions.

The setting up of a Corporate Affairs directorate to handle all its external relations reflected my strong feeling that the gap between the BBC's deserved reputation as an outstanding programme maker and its undeserved reputation as an unwieldy, secretive bureaucracy had to be closed. The BBC needed to explain itself better to politicians, opinion formers, to its staff and the public, and this has taken the form of the "See for Yourself" raft of accountability programmes, introduced in January 1988.

In the past the BBC has been a little reluctant to give itself objectives and to assert its sense of purpose. But in November 1987 the corporation published "The Next Five Years", a summary of policy priorities and objectives aimed as much at staff as the licence payer. It stressed the urgent need for increased efficiency and better management in order to concentrate resources on improved and expanded programme making. The message was the same in the "Funding the Future" report last year, which presented plans to make savings of at least £75 million a year by 1993, to release resources to fund a more competitive pay structure and to increase further the quality and range of programmes.

The Price Waterhouse report in January this year recommended specific financial improvements which the BBC should undertake over the next five years. Every large company has room for further improvement, but the report acknowledged that much has been achieved in the past few years. Price Waterhouse's inquiry also led it to propose cost savings of £131 million over the next five years out of a total expenditure of £7.5 billion.

The settlement of the licence fee for the next five years, with RPI minus 3% this year and RPI linkage in the following four years, subject to an appraisal of its performance in 1993, gives the BBC the stability to plan its development up to the renewal of the Charter at the end of 1996.

But the corporation is far from complacent. That is why it has set up a series of "task forces" to produce a constructive, coherent and far-seeing policy into the next century.

The many changes since 1987 have earned the BBC the right to retain its public service broadcasting role. This was certainly acknowledged in the White Paper on broadcasting: "The BBC has a special role. It will continue to be expected to provide high quality programming across the full range of public tastes and interests, including both programmes of popular appeal and of minority interest, and offer education, information and cultural material as well as entertainment ... the BBC is still, and will remain, for the foreseeable future, the cornerstone of British broadcasting."

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