Hello James Harding, the new head of BBC News

News is the most vulnerable area for the BBC. Some advice to James Harding as he starts his job: decentralise, but don’t encourage silos. Here’s how. The first of the 'Lis Howell on Broadcasting' columns. 

Lis Howell
18 April 2013

Recently I took part in a phone-in on BBC Radio Five Live Breakfast about the new Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall. There were about five or six callers in half an hour. All the callers were men. All sounded to be of a similar age.  All were equally articulate. All seemed quite similar. But all wanted totally different things from the BBC. And all were certain that their preferences represented those of the nation. They believed that the BBC was pandering to some dangerous sub group by not giving them more cricket, or more BBC Radio 6, or more serious programmes. Never has the adage that “you can’t please all the people all the time” seemed truer.

But we should park the criticism at that level. The programme content is not a problem for an organisation which last month got a TV audience share of around 27% - as opposed to ITV’s 25%, Channel 4’s less than 10% and Channel 5’s around 5%. Of course the audience is fragmenting (do you watch the Horse and Country Channel? Or the Liverpool FC channel? There’s a lot of choice out there…) but even so, the BBC still gets to most of us. Older viewers and listeners, even post the Savile crisis, still seem to trust the BBC. Ratings for BBC News have not gone down. 

But news is the most vulnerable area for the BBC. The BBC needs government backing to maintain funding through the licence fee; and in political terms, BBC News will be a hostage to fortune when the next Gilligan or McAlpine scandal occurs. Not only that, BBC News is in the frame for another reason. Even though many people still turn to the BBC for much of their news, younger people know that the sands are shifting. News coverage is changing more than any other element in media and news coverage should be the thing which keeps Tony Hall awake at night. His appointment of James Harding, just fired by Murdoch as Editor of the Times, is a strange one but shows that he wants someone to from the outside. It’s a moot point as to whether another not-very-transparent appointment (two interviewed candidates apparently) of a not-very-commercial person can do the trick. 

I would have liked to see someone from Sky or ITN parachuted in, but even so, maybe I can offer James Harding some suggestions?  I asked broadcast journalism students at City University London (his alma mater) to email me the thing they thought was of most concern in current broadcasting.  The issue which most students mentioned was the change in news provision - the frantic nightmare of keeping up with more access and greater contribution by the public, leading to the breakdown of traditional news editorial control. Plus the new platforms.  Never has there been so much information from so many sources, on demand. Although hardly any students mentioned the BBC, and none mentioned Tony Hall, the underlying question was whether conventional news outlets could cope.

David Elstein argues here in openDemocracy that the only way BBC News can survive is to de-centralise and pluralise, some might say fragment. But at the same time he argues that “silo thinking” caused the crisis over the Savile issue (where the BBC was accused of dropping a Newsnight show because one hand didn’t know what the other was doing.)  So David ends up arguing against silos and arguing for them at the same time, because you can’t de-centralise without small semi-autonomous departments aka silos. Aaargh.

But I think there IS a way of squaring the circle. We all say what a huge monolithic organisation the BBC is. So tough to manage! But actually, it isn’t.  All over Britain we have entities with lots of different creative and intellectual strands which often widely differ but which pull together as one organisation. They are called universities. The whole of the BBC is the size of a small to medium university, the sort you have in most cities in the UK, and the News is like a faculty within it. OK, likening the BBC to a university might not seem to work at the moment when the BBC is at loggerheads with the LSE, but think about it. The similarities are there. Don’t think Oxford colleges (a tough departure for BBC grandees, I know) but instead think red brick or post-1992. 

Apart from the duty of care to students, which mirrors the BBC’s dedication to the great British public (I hark back to the phone-in) there are also similarities in management possibilities.  Perhaps like at a university, Tony Hall and his managers should stop obsessing about structure and concentrate on content. His new Head of News should behave like a Dean whose function is managerial and who reports to Hall as if he were a Vice Chancellor. Then, Hall should (as planned) separate TV and radio news, and appoint separate editors who report to the News Director. Then as David Elstein suggest, they should fragment further. The Head of News should clearly separate news coverage from current affairs programmes. These are false categories anyway – what on earth is ‘current affairs’ when you get down to it?  Let each programme find its own level with its own editor, each reporting direct to the News Director. Then separate out the news channel (rolling news) and the news programmes (reportage). Then break off the regional news completely and let it be a bold and proud offering on its own. Also, make sure local radio is managed differently from local TV. World Service should be managed separately. Online should be separate. On the University model – let’s have loads of different departments reporting to one Dean, and several Deans reporting to one VC. It’s a broad, flat pyramid. It doesn’t mean that Schools don’t co-operate, or departments for that matter.  But they do have pride in their separate offerings.  If it works for a University, why shouldn’t it work for the BBC?   

So yes, you get silos but it’s possible to turn many silos into one farm. There needs to be a link between them, and they need to be directed, so what should that link be? Having an undaunted much vaunted BBC ethos, like an unashamed and simple drive for objectivity, could be a simple and bonding answer to the silo mentality. Is James Harding able and willing to buy into a broadcast news ethos which is entirely different from the world of print that he comes from? That is what is needed to bring the silos together. The aim should be to make each department more autonomous but less competitive. If editors stopped worrying about constantly appeasing people in the next management tier they would probably feel freer to communicate sideways.

Whatever the plan, something needs to happen. I am really concerned by the issues raised by my students. There is no doubt in my mind that despite everything we can do as journalism educators, they are worried.  They are worried about the responsibility they are being given at a basic level in newsrooms where everyone wants to cover their back and blame someone lower down the food chain. They are worried about the mass of material they have to deal with from different sources. They are worried about different platforms eroding their world, and both adding and taking away from their profession. This is not confined to the BBC but many of these students have worked there either on placement or on casual shifts. They really want the BBC to work. They don’t see it as outdated or superfluous. But they know about the lack of confidence from the inside.

So my message to Tony Hall and James Harding is, please, welcome the new world of multi-platform, multi-contribution, multi-layered information, forget the ‘one voice’ idea, and break down BBC News to reflect this. Stop banging on about the brand. The news is the news, not the “BBC News”. It doesn’t have to have a show-off label. It’s there because it’s what we need to hear, not because the BBC needs to tell us how great it is. You can and should still have an over-riding BBC ethos, but that’s not the same as BBC marketing and corporate straightjacketing. Let your people breathe.  Let line producers and programme editors come to the fore, with all their different views, but one journalistic ethic, which is broadcasting led and about fair play. Scrap the layers of management that get in the way. Have one news-crazy head honcho who lives and breathes your product and has the nous and the confidence to lead – hello Mr Harding!  Why don’t you model your empire on other organisations which deal with equally big, creative entities but which are flatter in structure, like modern universities.  In the current BBC framework there is neither ethos nor confidence and the people who worry most are those just starting out in their careers. Let them believe in their day-to-day editors and have pride in their separate programmes.  That is what they need. And if you lose the confidence of the entry-level workers, you lose the future.  

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