UK: PROFILE - JAMES ARNOLD-BAKER. - For the first time, OUP's new head hasn't been hired to do a turnaround job. But, even so, in dreamy Oxford, there are still giants to fight. By Malcolm Brown

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For the first time, OUP's new head hasn't been hired to do a turnaround job. But, even so, in dreamy Oxford, there are still giants to fight. By Malcolm Brown

James Arnold-Baker, new head of the Oxford University Press, will probably pinch himself next time he hears the Magdalen College bell tolling - just to make sure he's still there. To ease him back into the Oxford life his old college has made him a fellow. It is a Magdalen tradition that the college bell is rung twice for every fellow: the first time at his induction, the second at his memorial service.

'You don't get to hear it the second time,' says Arnold-Baker, 50, who, as well as being chief executive, is known, rather grandly, as Secretary to the Delegates of the OUP. The delegates are the distinguished academics who, in the words of the statutes, 'have charge of the affairs of the Press'.

It is ironic that Arnold-Baker should now be ensconced at the very heart of Oxford University, for when he took up his previous post as chief executive of the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Enterprises, in 1986, he told a Sunday newspaper that he had one niggling reservation about it. He feared the BBC might be too club-like, the whole thing just too much like Oxbridge.

He needn't have worried about the Beeb being too cosy. Within months of his arrival, the train of events had begun which led to the sacking of the then director-general, Alasdair Milne, and the troubled reigns of Milne's successors, Michael Checkland and John Birt. All that might have been exciting at first but in the end it was enervating and Arnold-Baker is clearly delighted to be back in the more civilised surroundings of Oxford.

The road there has been a winding one. After school at Gordonstoun, where he led the mountain rescue team, and Oxford, where he read geology, he became successively an executive at Watneys, managing director of Record Merchandisers and, just before the BBC, European chief for the American toy giant, Fisher-Price.

The toy trade, particularly the bit dealing with the under-threes, is, in Arnold-Baker's estimation, probably the most murderously competitive business there is. It was probably the ferocity of the competition in the toy trade which commended him to the BBC. With satellite and cable bursting onto the US and European scene during the 1980s, the business of selling broadcast programmes required someone who was shrewd, fast on his feet and hard-headed.

Looking back on his seven years at the BBC he recognises both successes and failures. One success was improving the financial performance of Enterprises, which of course meant more money to reinvest in programmes. Michael Checkland had set him a hard target - to double turnover and more than double profits within five years. He did it in four. Another plus was transforming the books and magazines divisions, from what he himself describes as a joke, into thriving and profitable businesses. And he helped set up many fine co-productions in everything from drama to natural history programmes. On the minus side, he suggests, he misjudged such things as the BBC's position on the copyright of programme listings - an expensive mistake - and the trailing of BBC magazines on television, which resulted in a Monopolies and Mergers Commission ban on the practice.

At bottom, he thinks, he probably failed, as the recession set in, to appreciate how the environment in which Enterprises was operating had changed. The spirit of the 'enterprise culture' was draining away and with it, so it seems in retrospect, the ability of hybrid organisations like Enterprises to act as commercially as they would like.

Those were external problems. Internally, the challenge for Arnold-Baker was to take two essentially antagonistic cultures - the creative and the business - and make them work in harmony. The main way of doing that was to put 'implants' in each department - Enterprises' staff whose job was to encourage the producers and programme makers to think about exploiting ideas to the full.

The new David Attenborough series, The Secret Life of Plants, for instance, was helped along by an Enterprises linkman at the Natural History Unit in Bristol. 'From the very beginning when the producer and David were thinking about that idea our person was already starting to ask, "Will there be a book? Where would we get co-producers? What sort of sales can we get around the world? Is there a video here? How will it fit in with BBC Wildlife magazine?" and all those sort of things.' By the time Arnold-Baker left, almost every department had someone from Enterprises in it. In the early days there had been diehards who resented the purity of the BBC being sullied by commercialism, but that kind of thinking diminished almost to vanishing point. 'There's nothing like being short of money to sharpen one's need for these things,' says Arnold-Baker.

Perhaps the area in which Enterprises demonstrated most clearly both the strengths and weaknesses of intermingling the two cultures was in co-productions. Arnold-Baker and his people would scour the world looking for partners for major drama and documentary series. Some of the results, he says, were wonderful, most notably perhaps the natural history programmes. Some were appalling. His own nomination for all-time turkey is the film that was made of Jeffrey Archer's Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, which he loathed. But there were others. The co-production of Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, for instance, is regarded at the BBC as a classic case of talent and money coming together to produce a stinker.

During his last three years at the BBC Arnold-Baker was a member of the corporation's top internal steering group, the Board of Management, so he participated in the developing turmoil which engulfed the organisation in the 1990s. It was a dreadfully confusing time, he says, and nothing perhaps was worse than the decision of the Governors to agree a 15-month overlap period between outgoing director-general Michael Checkland and in-coming D-G John Birt. It was completely insane, says Arnold-Baker. 'It wasn't that Mike and John disagreed much in public - they didn't, they actually got on very well together - the problem was that it effectively held up any long-term projects because you couldn't get agreement to them. There wasn't any way of progressing them.' Learning a lesson from that, he asked that his own overlap period at the OUP should be a week. He and his predecessor, Sir Roger Elliott, had the most intense discussions imaginable, he says.'We talked nothing but OUP solidly, eyeball-to-eyeball, for a week.' He thinks the OUP and the BBC are very similar in many ways and it was these similarities which attracted him to the Oxford job.'It's a bit like the BBC in that it's one of the great British institutions and there seemed to be that same strange mixture of commercial and public service ethics which I found very fascinating at the BBC.' There is, however, one great difference between this job and almost any other he has done before. 'It's the first time in my career that I haven't been hired to try and turn something round. Roger Elliott has left me the business in terrific shape.' In fact, Arnold-Baker does not have a turnaround job to do largely because Elliott and his predecessors had already resolved several major issues - like the decision to cease being a printer.

'We used to do a great deal and what was happening was that the tail was wagging the dog. The schedules were run by the need to fill up the print works.' It was a terrible emotional wrench - the university had been printing in Oxford since the 16th century - and a big human problem since it involved redundancies, but it was essential.

Arnold-Baker sees his job now as building on established success. The OUP is not only the world's largest and arguably most distinguished academic publisher, it is also a major player in ELT (the teaching of English as a foreign language), books for schools, and general publishing.

'What we've got here is an extremely powerful and quite large - £180-million turnover - publishing company which is very international but facing many technological changes and competition from major divisions of huge conglomerates like NewsCorp.' Arnold-Baker sees his medium-term task as steering a way through the technological changes and finding ways to compete with and beat the giants.

One of the most extraordinary innovations on the horizon will be printing on demand for scholars. One of the great problems for academic publishers is the steady drip-feed of letters from authors and academics asking why particular titles are out of stock. 'It may have been published 30, 40 or 50 years ago and we've probably been selling one a year. We tend not to delete academic titles, it's just that you don't want to reprint. But I think that will all change. We suspect printing on demand will be the next thing. With new technology most of the stuff is electronically captured anyhow, so, although it isn't there yet, it will soon be the case that if an academic in a university miles from here says, "Look I do remember that old title. I'd like it", we may well be able to run it off at an economic price for him.' Ultimately it may be possible to do customised 'mix'n match' books taking a chapter from Kant, for instance, and then supplementing it with commentaries from other sources.

Information technology will also revolutionise works of reference. The OUP has already put the whole 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary on a CD-ROM, known rather irreverently at the Walton Street headquarters as 'the golden beer mat' and there will be much more of that.

But, while he thinks information technology is going to be an enormous boon to publishers, Arnold-Baker constantly reminds himself of its accompanying dangers. It is dangerous, he says, because there are immense financial and technical pitfalls. 'One can lose tons of money.' He did just that at Enterprises when, amid enormous fanfare, the organisation got involved in the so-called Domesday Project, a portrait of Britain on interactive video disc. 'I remember in my first year writing off £2.9 million on this wretched project, because basically it had been designed for the educational establishment, but the costs had escalated so they couldn't afford it.' When he is not working Arnold-Baker will probably content himself with fly fishing and gardening and he will almost certainly patronise any productions put on by the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) of which he was a technical director in the early 1960s. In fact he helped stage Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound in the gardens of New College. It had been decided that the star, Michael York, should play the part bound to a crucifix on top of a scaffolding tower. In a real coup de theatreYork would descend to the ground on this contraption, rotating like a Catherine wheel. As technical director, Arnold-Baker felt duty bound to test the device before York risked life and limb. But, though a scientist, he got his calculations wrong and ended up hanging upside down 20 feet above the ground with the loose change raining from his pockets. 'People's heads are a bit heavier than their bums,' he says. 'I hadn't got that right.'

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