John Simpson

Dear boss…

Advice for the BBC’s incoming director general

Dear boss…
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Dear Director General

Many congratulations on getting the best job in world broadcasting. Enjoy it as much as you can, while you can; in my 46 years at the Beeb, few directors-general have left as they would have chosen. Several were forced out before their time was up — usually as the result of bad behaviour by governments, Conservative and Labour.

Mark Thompson made it through to the end, but I imagine he’s glad to go. His last two years have been overshadowed by a licence-fee agreement which has turned out to be harsher than anything the BBC has ever previously experienced. The shock of it all has become a part of the lives of every one of us. Making good programmes costs money; cut the money, and the quality visibly suffers.

As a result, people who work for the BBC have become profoundly disheartened, and your first and most pressing job as director general will be to do something about that. Success or failure will depend on how you take control of this weird, difficult and occasionally brilliant outfit.

I assume you will already have worked out how to cut the salaries which the topmost administrators have been awarded: a major self-inflicted injury if ever there was one. If we are going to keep the goodwill of the people who fund us, we will have to get back to basics.

The BBC has a contract with its licence-fee payers: as long as they come up with the cash, they have the right to expect that we will give them programmes which cater to their interests in the best and (to use a word you don’t hear much nowadays) most principled form possible. John Reith privately loathed the light entertainment shows the BBC produced in his time, but, difficult man though he was, he understood that a broadcasting service which only put out the Morning Service and lectures about the Sudetenland was unlikely to be particularly successful. That realisation laid the foundation for everything that has followed.

So, director general, permit me as one of the BBC’s few surviving lifers to offer a few bits of gratuitous advice. First, don’t be afraid to be Reithian. For the BBC, the dilemma has always been that if fewer people watch it and listen to it, they will wonder why they should have to pay a licence fee; while if its programmes become too populist, the critics will say it’s dumbing down.

The BBC has shown that delivering high audiences is easy; now, even though the money has evaporated, we have to keep on delivering high quality. Our savage programme of cutbacks has been given the euphemistic title ‘Delivering Quality First’; well, George Orwell once worked for the BBC, of course. But now we’ve delivered the cuts, we must demonstrate that we’re delivering the quality.

Don’t, second, think that will in any way be easy. Be frank about the damage the cuts are doing. When Aung San Suu Kyi went to the BBC headquarters a fortnight ago, the first thing she did (after expressing her gratitude for the BBC’s efforts over the years) was to complain about the drop in quality. People around the world are wondering if our standards are as high as they were. We must demonstrate to them quickly that we genuinely are delivering quality first.

As for the BBC’s workforce, hunched over our oars, we’d like to see something of you. So, third, emulate Greg Dyke. When he became DG after John Birt, it was like experiencing the living presence after the immaterial spirit. We sometimes winced a bit, but Greg’s matiness and lack of grandeur were soon appreciated throughout the organisation. Press the flesh, just as he did. Give the suffering multitudes an occasional shoulder-­squeeze, and you’ll see how well they’ll respond. But please don’t think you can get away with sending out cheery emails which tell us how well everything is going: we bin those immediately.

Fourth, even though times are hard, find ways to look after your staff better. Most salaries are remarkably low, especially those of senior producers. They give the BBC its tone and quality, even more than the stars and presenters who the newspapers claim are earning millions. (Quite how the papers know this I can never understand, since star payments are the best-kept secrets in the business.)

Fifth, return to basics in other ways. Remember that the BBC is supposed to be the wellspring of our national language, and that you’re the editor-in-chief. Hunt down and destroy any management jargon that sounds as if it could have come from Kim Jong-un. Greg Dyke ­characteristically introduced a campaign called ‘Cut the Crap’, which might have succeeded if he hadn’t been driven out of office. Show you disapprove of Birt-speak and all the ­sloppy ­Americanisms, and you’ll see how fast they fade.

Don’t, sixth, bother too much about what the papers say. Several British newspapers are sworn enemies of public service broadcasting, and know their owners will be richer if the corporation is chopped. You’ll never win them round. Does that matter? These papers don’t represent the nation; roughly the same number of people want to scrap the monarchy as want to get rid of the BBC. Ignore the nutters and the obsessives, but listen hard to the ordinary people of the country. The more they feel the BBC is once again becoming the institution they approve of, the more successful you’ll be.

Finally, don’t be too nervous. For your first three years you’ll have a coalition government which probably won’t take you on, and a chairman who’ll back you up if it does. And remember: no British government has ever had anything approaching the level of support which the BBC enjoys from the people of Britain, every single day of the year. Even now.

A lot is resting on your shoulders. Good luck and good wishes.