Transitional Times: Change at the BBC 1987 to 1996

Part of the DUV : Sozialwissenschaft book series (DUVSW)


Chapters 1 to 4 have illuminated and examined the BBC’s environment as well as external factors that had an influence on developments at the BBC. Chapter 5 now portrays how the running and organising of the Corporation has been transformed from the late 1980s until early 1996. Almost all the changes and reforms were intended to
  • accommodate external pressures and developments in the BBC’s environment;

  • secure Charter renewal;

  • comply with a changed understanding of the BBC as a publicly funded institution.


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  1. 1.
    The BBC Governors who legally are the BBC should only set the broad framework but not interfere with management decisions. This has not always been the case, in particular during Marmaduke Hussey’s terms as chairman of the Board of Governors. (See also chapters 5.3.6 and 6.9 where issues of BBC governance, including possible alternatives, are discussed in greater detail.)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Milne’s dismissal followed the clashes between government and Corporation during the mid-1980s (see also chapter 3.4.4) and was executed only months after Marmaduke Hussey had been appointed chairman of the Board of Governors in October 1986. In many observers’ opinion Hussey was appointed ‘to sort out the BBC.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Checkland had his application for the job of Director-General prepared very carefully. He presented the Board of Governors with a blueprint for the restructuring of the BBC, preparing the Corporation for the new broadcasting environment. See Horrie and Clarke (1994), p. 74.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Checkland became Deputy Director-General in 1985. Previously, he had been director of Television Resources.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Barnett and Curry (1994), p. 26. See also pp. 54–55.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    O’Malley(1994),p. 154.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Madge (1989), p. 150. According to Madge, this was highly necessary because of the BBC’s opaque bureaucratic structures which, in his opinion, had led to an unhealthy civil service mentality among a great number of staff.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    This resulted in redundancy payments amounting to £70 million during the financial year 1991/92, compared with £36.3 million the previous year. See O’Malley and Treharne (1993), p. 14.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    AA Barnett and AA Curry (1994), p. 72. The aim was to have 500 hours of television output included in the schedules by the end of 1989.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Michael Checkland quoted in Barnett and Curry (1994), p. 68. It was precisely this announcement that led Channel 4’s Michael Grade to speak of the BBC abandoning its heritage (see chapter 4.4). Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Under Milne, the Black Spot Spending Review Committee, to which Checkland had belonged, had had a similar aim: to identify areas where savings could be made. The financial system in operation at the BBC before Checkland took over (and why it had to be modified) is examined by Barnett and Curry (1994), pp. 102–105.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Funding the Future was instigated to release resources to fund a more competitive pay structure. Of its recommendations, the Board of Governors and BBC Management accepted proposals worth £75 million per annum to be achieved by 1993/94. See Touche Ross Report for the Department of National Heritage (1993), p. 6. Cost reductions included the sales of BBC property and issuing new staff with short-term contracts. By 1991, one in six employees worked for the BBC on a temporary basis. See also Checkland, Michael (1991): Transcript of Director General’s Speech at the RTS Cambridge Convention. [Unpublished manuscript] London: BBC, p. 3.Google Scholar
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    Oliver, Mark(1993): BBC Spending: Adapting to a New World Order. In: Barnett, Steven (ed.) (1993): Funding the BBC’s Future. London: British Film Institute, p. 116.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See Touche Ross Report for the Department of National Heritage (1993), p. 6 and Oliver (1993), p. 117.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Oliver (1993), p. 118.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See Touche Ross Report for the Department of National Heritage (1993), p. 6.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Marmaduke Hussey quoted in Cain (1992), p. 134. In this context it is important to note that many management posts were filled by people who did not have a background in broadcasting. This has been a source of major criticism (see chapter 5.5). Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Birt had started his career in television at Granada Television in 1966. Five years later, in 1971, he joined L WT. There he was head of Current Affairs and head of Features before he became head of Programmes in 1982.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Goodwin, Peter(1993): The Future of the BBC. In: Media, Culture and Society (London, Sage), Vol. 15 (1993), p. 501. Publication of the Producers’ Guidelines confirms this (see also chapter 3.5.2). Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Birt, John(1993d): The BBC. The Royal Television Society Fleming Memorial Lecture. [Unpublished manuscript] London: BBC, (no pages).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    The post was not publicly advertised which prevented other possible candidates like John Tusa from challenging Birt for the job. This resulted in the BBC’s reputation being dented further and reinforced the beliefs of those who saw a politically motivated conspiracy. Asked about the decision not to invite any applications for the post, John Tusa replied that “[...] it was very unwise to do so.” John Tusa interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek on 6.3.1996.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Barnett and Curry (1994), p. 161.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    One of the most regularly voiced criticisms — of which there are countless ones — is that Birt put reforms above anything else and did not put much consideration into aspects concerning the BBC’s history, tradition and ethos. It is, in particular, the question of BBC ethos, founded on over 70 years of broadcasting tradition, that plays a vital role for the running and working of the Corporation and its staff. Geoff Mülgan, for example, is of the opinion that the reforms of John Birt have partly neglected this vital issue. He argues that the “[...] problem of ethos is in fact one of the obvious inconsistencies at the heart of ‘Birtianism’, which simultaneously proclaims a professional ethic, on the one hand, and structural reforms which erode it on the other, in a programme of reform that seems likely to give more power to the bureaucrats rather than the ethocrats.” Mulgan (1993b), p. 79 (author’s own emphasis). Sue Griffin outlines the problems Birt was faced with at the BBC: “The commercial logic [of recent changes] is sound, but there is a creative risk that in foisting corporate-speak and a plethora of guidelines on an institution which has thrived on the osmosis which critical mass and flexibility permit, the very people the BBC should nurture will be alienated in the process.” Griffin (1993), p. 102. Since there has been so much criticism of John Birt’s radical reform programme, related aspects will be discussed separately in chapter 5.5. Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Even though some aspects have already been discussed in earlier chapters (see in particular chapter 3.5), it has been decided to return to these issues and analyse them in greater detail in order to stress their significance for the reform process at the BBC.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    One likely reason for this change in attitude is the fact that the Major government was not that strong initially and did not seem to want to engage in an ideological battle about possibly dismantling a highly regarded national institution such as the BBC. Additionally, there was not much need for governmental interference because by late 1992 the BBC was already in the middle of reforming itself from within (see also chapter 3.5.1). Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    1992 Green Paper, p. 5 (foreword by Peter Brooke).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Steven Barnett and Andrew Curry go as far as claiming that BBC Management had lobbied Brooke’s predecessor, David Mellor, at the DNH not to be ‘too soft’ on the BBC in the Green Paper: had this been the case, the government’s position might have been less radical than the BBC’s own. See Barnett, Steven and Curry, Andrew: Birt droppings. In: The Guardian 2, 22.8.1994, pp. 14–15.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    The document centres around issues such as distinctiveness, high quality, efficiency, value for money and accountability. Its contents will be discussed in later chapters. For more information see also Winston (1994). Apart from examining the contents of both Extending Choice and the 1992 Green Paper, Winston outlines what possible strategies lay behind the formulations used.Google Scholar
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    Winston (1994), p. 23. Another question Extending Choice failed to answer was how all the proposals for programmes were to be paid for.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Birt (1993b). Personal notes from an interview of Jeremy Isaacs with John Birt at the National Film Theatre, London, 9 March 1993. A transcribed version of the interview is reprinted in: British Film Institute (ed.) (1993), pp. 166–185.Google Scholar
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    See Harvey, Sylvia and Robins, Kevin (1993b): Interview with Mark Byford, BBC Controller of Regional Broadcasting. In: Harvey, Sylvia and Robins, Kevin(eds.) (1993): The Regions, the Nations and the BBC London: British Film Institute, p. 97 and Hodgson, Patricia (1993): Quality and Choice: The Future Role of the BBC In: Stevenson, Wilf (ed.) (1993): All Our Futures. The Changing Role and Purpose of the BBC. London: British Film Institute. Patricia Hodgson, director of the BBC’s Policy and Planning Directorate and a member of the steering committee, outlines the process that led to the publication of Extending Choice, and portrays how the BBC itself sees the proposals put forward in the document. Horrie and Clarke nevertheless remark that selected participants were chosen “[...] with a bias towards Birtist recruits and placemen.” Horrie and Clarke (1994), p. 203.Google Scholar
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    Later in 1993 the BBC published Responding to the Green Paper, which “[...] represents the BBC’s considered response to the Government’s Green Paper [...]. [It seeks] to address directly the key issues and questions raised by the Green Paper — and in doing so, to explain our vision of the BBC in the 1990s and beyond.” BBC (1993d): Responding to the Green Paper. London: BBC, p. 2. The document is based on research, public debates and written responses.Google Scholar
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    Kuhn and Wheeler (1994), p. 436.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    The Department of National Heritage received a total of about 8,000 responses to the 1992 Green Paper. See Hargreaves (1993), p. 1. Tom O’Malley and Jo Treharne remark sarcastically that they would have been “[...] doomed to reside in vaults of the National Heritage department unless the people and organisations submitting them decided they should be published.” O’Malley and Treharne (1993), p. 22. The authors argue further that the government was not committed to initiating a public debate about the future of the BBC.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Apart from the five volumes in which some 50 commentators present their views on various aspects concerning the BBC’s future (edited by Wilf Stevenson; Steven Barnett; Sylvia Harvey and Kevin Robins; Colin Shaw; Geoff Mulgan and Richard Paterson), the BFI in association with BAFTA staged their own two-day version of a Commission of Inquiry in March 1993 (published by British Film Institute (ed.) (1993)), and also canvassed a selection of varying responses to the 1992 Green Paper (see Stevenson, Wilf (ed.) (1994): Responses to the Green Paper. London: British Film Institute).Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    See BBC (1993d) which includes some of the research findings.Google Scholar
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    Roger Bolton quoted in Hill, Dave: This chat is just for show. In: The Guardian 2, 19.4.1993, pp. 14–15. Hill supports Bolton’s view that there has not been a debate that significantly influenced decision-makers at the BBC, regardless of the amount of time and resources that went into consultation exercises.Google Scholar
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    Birt, John(1993a): ‘Extending Choice’: Turning Promises into Realities. Director-General’s address to BBC staff in January 1993. Reprinted in Ariel, Week 2, 12.1.1993, pp. 5–9. The BBC also set up Extending Choice workshops in order for staff to voice their opinions on proposed changes. See Reynolds, Robin: Working on change. In: Ariel, Week 36, 7.9.1993, pp. 4–5 and N.N: Report Back. Extending Choice — The Workshop. In: Ariel (Supplement Autumn 1994), Week 40, 4.10.1994, pp. S1-S4.Google Scholar
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    Birt (1993a), p. 5.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    John Birt quoted in Parston (1993), p. 3.Google Scholar
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    Culf, Andrew: Victory for Birt’s BBC revolution. In: The Guardian, 7.7.1994, p. 1;Google Scholar
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    and Frean, Alexandra and Prynn, Jonathan: Birt triumphs in the battle of the BBC. In: The Times, 7.7.1994, p. 1.Google Scholar
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    Birt (1993d), (no pages).Google Scholar
  45. 43.
    Some Conservatives found that the BBC’s reforms did not go far enough and the 1994 White Paper should have taken a tougher line. See Prynn, Jonathan: Brooke didn’t go far enough, say hardline Tories. In: The Times, 7.7.1994, p. 11.Google Scholar
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    Parston (1993), p. 4 (author’s own emphasis).Google Scholar
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    For the following see N.N.: How the money goes round. In: Ariel, Week 26, 27.6.1995, pp. 12–13; Starks, Michael (1993): BBC Public Service Broadcasting. In: Mülgan, Geoff and Paterson, Richard (eds.) (1993): Reinventing the Organisation. London: British Film Institute, pp. 38–39; and Michael Starks in British Film Institute (ed.) (1993), p. 132. Michael Starks was the BBC’s project director for Producer Choice. In June 1996 it was announced that operating practices were to be modified further by April 1997. (For more information see Postscript.) Google Scholar
  48. 46.
    In November 1995, the Department of National Heritage announced that the BBC must sell its 1,400 transmitters, but will be allowed to keep 70–80 per cent of the proceeds for reinvestment. See Broadcasting Bill 1995, clause 90 and Lewis, John: Transmitter sale may net £100m. In: Broadcast, 1.12.1995, p. 6.Google Scholar
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    See Oliver (1993), p. 119 and Birt (1993a), p. 6.Google Scholar
  50. 48.
    See Starks (1993), pp. 39–40.Google Scholar
  51. 49.
    Judging by the Director-General’s annual performance reviews, a significant amount of arbitrariness seems to be involved in the process of quality evaluation (see also chapter 6.4.1). Google Scholar
  52. 50.
    See Extending Choice (1992), p. 53. Some consequences of Producer Choice have been a significant reduction of the workforce; selling off BBC property; and the reduction of studios, stages and outside broadcasting units. Extending Choice moreover claims that Producer Choice is the Corporation’s main tool for delivering ‘outstanding value for money’. See Extending Choice (1992), pp. 52–55.Google Scholar
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    See 1994 White Paper, paras 3.22–3.23.Google Scholar
  54. 52.
    A very detailed account of what led to the introduction of Producer Choice and the stages of its implementation, including underlying strategies, is given by Cloot, Peter (1994): BBC Producer Choice: A Case Study. Oxford: Major Projects Association. Since the author was given access to internal documents and also talked to some of the individuals involved in the project, his account provides an extremely illuminating view of how this particular element of reform was planned and carried out subsequently. Cloot also demonstrates how programmes were produced before Producer Choice was introduced. For more information see also Paterson, Richard (1993): New Model BBC In: Mülgan, Geoff and Paterson, Richard (eds.) (1993): Reinventing the Organisation. London: British Film Institute, pp. 24–25, who also outlines what was undertaken before Producer Choice was finally implemented in April 1993. Another very detailed description of Producer Choice and the initiatives leading up to its introduction is given by Barnett and Curry (1994), pp. 180–196.Google Scholar
  55. 53.
    Extending Choice (1992), p. 53. It is important to point out that the 25 per cent quota is only a minimum quota that needs to be achieved. No maximum number is given. Moreover, nobody from the top of the BBC wants to be committed to a particular maximum number for independent productions. See for example Michael Starks in British Film Institute (ed.) (1993), pp. 132–133. This means that, in theory, the BBC could shift from being predominantly an in-house producer and broadcaster to becoming a commissioner of programmes, as it is the case with Channel 4. This leads to further questions such as whether there is the need for a ‘critical mass’ of people working inside the BBC, and how large that group should be (see also chapter 6.5). Google Scholar
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    Extending Choice (1992), p. 53.Google Scholar
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    Birt, John(1993c): The BBC. Present and Future. Speech delivered at the Radio Academy’s Radio Festival on 14 July 1993 in Birmingham. [Unpublished manuscript] London: BBC, (no pages). See also Birt (1993b) where John Birt agreed with Jeremy Isaacs that Producer Choice was intended to achieve economy by slimming down the resource base of the BBC.Google Scholar
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    In July 1992 the BBC discovered a £25 million overspend which doubled during the course of inquiry.Google Scholar
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    Roger Bolton quoted in Routledge, Paul: BBC reforms ‘a failure’. In: The Independent On Sunday, 3.10.1993, p. 2. BECTU’s criticism of the Producer Choice initiative is also outlined in Stevenson, Wilf (ed.) (1994), pp. 50–52.Google Scholar
  62. 60.
    For more detailed information on how exactly the cash flow is organised at the BBC see N.N.: How the money goes round. In: Ariel, Week 26, 27.6.1995, pp. 12–13. See also Busfield, Steve: Cash crisis is ‘killing off’ Producer Choice. In: Broadcast, 10.3.1995, p. 1, in which Charles Denton, then head of BBC Drama, is quoted as saying: “We are in a position where we need to manage cash outflows very strictly over the next two years. This may result in some programmes not being made.” In order to delay cash spending on services, a return to heavier use of in-house resources seems likely because they can be paid for through paper transactions. This partly makes the underlying idea of Producer Choice redundant.Google Scholar
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    Marmaduke Hussey in BBC (1993b): Annual Review 1992/93. Report and Accounts. London: BBC, p. 13.Google Scholar
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    This view is supported by an unidentified BBC producer writing in The Times outlining how working under Producer Choice has increased bureaucracy while being a strain on programme production. See N.N.: Hiding from the free market blast. In: The Times, 7.7.1993, p. 32.Google Scholar
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    In Extending Choice the BBC nevertheless argues for the need to maintain a Single Coherent Broadcasting Organisation. See Extending Choice (1992), pp. 41–49. Instead, by seeking to become more effective, those propagating radical reform seem to be giving up some of the BBC’s strengths, namely being one organisation involved in a multitude of tasks.Google Scholar
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    James Arnold-Baker quoted in Reynolds, Robin: Enterprises faces up to Green Paper. In: Ariel, Week 8, 9.3.1993, p. 6. In Arnold-Baker’s opinion, marketing the BBC can only be maximised through being integrated. He therefore rejects any proposals for a clearer separation of the BBC’s commercial activities. This is done by Richard Collins and James Purnell. They suggest disaggregating the BBC into commercial and public service units because, in their opinion, this would improve efficiency and remove conflicts of interest. See Collins and Purnell (1995), pp. 9 and 17–18. According to the authors, the 1994 White Paper fails to reconcile public service with successful commercial performance.Google Scholar
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    Birt (1993a), p. 6. While the first ‘new-style’ Annual Report was the one of the financial year 1992/93, the changes proposed by John Birt are fully reflected in the Annual Reports from 1993/94 onwards.Google Scholar
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    John Tusa quoted in Porter, Henry: Corporate punishment. In: The Guardian 2, 19.6.1995, pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
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