Viral whinging at the BBC

At this time of year it’s customary to look back and reflect on life while gazing into the middle distance (or into the bottom of a glass of mulled wine). But today I found myself nipping back about 15 years.

I was transported by a fascinating – if depressing – article in the Guardian describing BBC staff moaning about Mark Thompson, the DG.

The bit that caught my eye was the fact that staff are using the compulsory “Safeguarding Trust” seminars as an opportunity to do the moaning.

Years ago, somewhere around the Jurassic era, all BBC staff had to attend compulsory seminars about the new BBC internal market – part of John Birt’s Producer Choice revolution. Everyone was going to be a business unit and would sell their expertise to everyone else, even if they were sitting in the same office.

We all know how that ended in tears, but back then, being a naive young thing, I trolled along to these events looking forward to finding out about the brave new world and sharing views with my BBC colleagues.

I came away two hours later feeling like all my optimism had been sucked out of me. The seminar had become a conduit for all the bile that people were feeling about the new BBC, and the new DG in particular. I came from a relatively happy part of the BBC, and had never heard anything like it.

That was in the 1990s. I suppose nowadays we’d call is something like ‘viral whinging’.

It looks as if “Safeguarding Trust” has been acting as a similar conduit for all the discontent that’s been building up in the BBC over the last couple of years.

This is a shame, as there’s nothing inherently wrong with examining the best way to keep an audience’s trust.

So is it a problem? Well I suspect it might be for the sanity of BBC staff at the moment. Being forced to go on a seminar about trust when you’d rather be safeguarding your own job (or department) must feel like re-pointing the walls of Jericho – nice to have but ultimately a waste of everyone’s time.

I see that the Guardian suggests senior staff are joining in the moaning and not passing back the bad news to Mr Thompson. That happened with Producer Choice as well.

I suspect the difference this time is that Mark Thompson doesn’t realise how unpopular he is. John Birt was well aware and didn’t care.

Posted on 19 December 2007

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