James Cridland

“BBC staffed by people ‘whose mum and dad worked there’, says Nadine Dorries”

BBC staffed by people ‘whose mum and dad worked there’, says Nadine Dorries
_Nadine Dorries has labelled the BBC an institution riven by bias and staffed by people “whose mum and dad worked…_www.theguardian.com

…so starts a piece in The Guardian, containing the juiciest bits of criticisms from a podcast interview by Nadine Dorries, the new UK culture secretary.

She’d know all about places staffed by people like that, of course, given that she brilliantly gave both her daughters well-salaried jobs in her own parliamentary office.

But she didn’t actually say what’s quoted in the headline. She actually said: “We’re having a discussion about how the BBC can become more representative of the people who pay the licence fee, and how it can be more accessible to people from all backgrounds, not just people whose mum and dad worked there.”

Dorries’s statement is about the output of the BBC, not its employment makeup; but that makes for a slightly less neat headline.

Ofcom has done research into this, of course. You might jump to the conclusion, as Dorries appears to have, that the BBC is for posh people; for ABC1s, and for older folk. In fact, it isn’t appreciably skewed in terms of audience, the data seems to suggest.

Yes, BBC television’s total viewing share of 32% dips to 27% among C2DEs, the type of people who’s mum and dad probably wouldn’t work at the BBC. But ABC1s watch 1 hour 10 minutes of BBC television a day; and C2DEs watch slightly more, 1 hour 12 minutes of BBC television a day. (It turns out that C2DEs watch more TV overall).

So, given the BBC does a pretty good job of reaching everyone in the UK, does Dorries have a point at all?

I worked for the BBC for a couple of years. I couldn’t tell you whether anyone’s mum or dad worked for the BBC, and I’m not sure that’s terribly relevant.

What I can tell you, though, is that the BBC has many “lifers”: far more so than in other companies I’ve worked with. Hardly surprising: it’s a big place, with more than 22,000 employees. If you really want to keep working at the BBC, and you can survive the continuous re-organisations and internal political power battles, then it’s a place you can thrive.

Many jobs are advertised for internal candidates only, so it’s easy to side-step from one job to another. As an internal candidate, you know more about the BBC structure than externals do, so you’re more valuable as a staff member. The BBC may be a place where you do career-defining work, but with that comes a baffling degree of “getting people on-side”, a process that works best if you’re savvy at navigating the politics of a decision across different departments.

The BBC also has a secondment process where, as I understood it at the time, one of my software developers could decide they’d quite like to be a producer for Radio 3, and they’d spend six months learning how to do that while I continued to pay their salary and keep their job filled, followed by the inevitable resignation from my payroll because she was brilliant and therefore offered a job at Radio 3.

This creates more fundamental issues than allegations of nepotism. It does, genuinely, mean that BBC output isn’t representative to all.

Many BBC lifers leave university and go straight into the BBC. That’s brilliant, but it means that they have little understanding (and, dare I say, appreciation) of commercial business. I worked on a number of pieces of work pulling together commercial and public service, and it was very clear to me that BBC folk were either inappropriately arrogant or fearful of their commercial colleagues.

The lack of understanding of commercial business led itself to having no clear KPIs for projects. Things were approved to make on arbitrary measures like whether it would look like a good thing to do, or whether we’d approved so-and-so’s last time so we ought to approve someone else’s this time, rather than any attempt at measuring impact on audiences.

And don’t get me started on how the finances worked.

It says something that the most successful product from the BBC in the last fifteen years, the BBC iPlayer, was in the end pushed through by a few outsiders. Erik Huggers came from Microsoft, and Anthony Rose from filesharing program Kazaa. The speed at which they produced the product was deeply unsettling, and even bewildering, to others within the organisation. Rose lasted three years; Huggers four. There are plenty of BBC folk surrounding that project who’ve been there for more than twenty.

So, is Dorries a dreadful hypocrite? Absolutely.

But does the BBC benefit from “lifers”? I’d argue they’re a hindrance to the corporation’s purpose: and that a healthier BBC would be one where fresh blood was seen as essential.