Dimbleby half right on BBC management

There was something quite blissful about David Dimbleby’s contribution to today’s BBC Today programme (12 November 2012). He said the BBC was over-managed, and that such organisations as the BBC and NHS spawned bureaucracies. The paradox here is that he doesn’t grasp that one reason that the NHS and the BBC are alike is that they are both state-sponsored behemoths with monolithic tendencies.

It is worth saying that even if the BBC or the NHS is over-managed, the real term to use is “badly-managed”. Any organisation, large or small, needs good management. But creative and caring organisations face a special problem: the “sharp-end” of professionals despises management as mechanical, obstructionist dullards. Chris Patten seems to have been spot-on when he remarked on the Andrew Marr Show something to the effect that too many editorial and creative people in the BBC did not realise that they were, actually, in management and – he implied – needed to grow up and accept the fact. Tangentially, it is worth agreeing with Patience Wheatcroft’s remark on today’s Today show that it was absurd that the BBC should have a compliance department when – she said in terms – compliance with journalistic standards is the disciplinary half of what editors do for a living.

It is worth adding that even a right-winger like me, who is primed to suspect state-sponsored organisations, cannot reach for the idea that no organisations should be state-sponsored. I am a fan of the idea of a Civil Service, for instance. And it should be obvious that since I am a fan of good management I am a fan of bureaucracy: I merely stress that both should be as lean and smart as possible.

And yet there is a logic to my delight that a Dimbleby should compare the BBC to the NHS. My book, “Scrap the BBC!”, argued that we should get rid of the BBC partly because it would be easy to do and a good rehearsal for getting rid of the NHS. And they both needed to be scrapped because services should not be provided by huge, nationalised, tax-funded organisations if at all possible. The existence of such bodies, funded in that way, infantilises society. The BBC and the NHS make cowards and children of us all. The BBC aunties us and the NHS nannies us.

I argued in the book that the BBC was usually defended on the grounds that it was a necessary institution. But actually, I think its Dimble-oid characteristics are a big part of  the harm it does. In short, we do not need the BBC because it alone can do Remembrance Sunday. Similarly, we don’t need the BBC because it alone has the institutional memory which holds the nation’s broadcasting together. Indeed, time and again the BBC has recently given us evidence that it is not good at these supposed parts of its genius, and other institutions have demonstrated they are quite good at corralling experienced talent. (By the way, the BBC’s Olympic overage was brilliant as a bread-and-circus operation for a parochial British people, but the reporting was very nearly xenophobic and certainly did no favours to the concept that Britain was playing host to the whole world for that fortnight, as Mark Thompson nearly pointed out, in what was an insight he might have had straight from Reith. I add this remark to head-off one major strand of recent BBC self-congratulation.)

Anyway, for as long as the the BBC and NHS exist, they both pose fascinating management challenges problems which everyone ought to hope will be dealt with well.

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Publication date

12 November 2012