Tony Hall finally started work as BBC director general this week – no doubt in the hope that he lasts longer than the 54 days chalked up by his predecessor George Entwistle. In an email to staff on Tuesday, Hall called for “imagination and hard work” and coined some expected platitudes, such as assurances that staff were already “winning back trust” and that his job was to enable them to do “the best work of [their] lives”, and to “remove the distractions that get in the way of that ambition”.
Such “distractions” have been very bluntly described by Melvyn Bragg as the BBC’s middle management. In a series of uncompromising remarks just days before Hall settled in at his desk, the renowned arts broadcaster said: “The Savile crisis has exposed a dire structure and I think he should go in with a cleansing sword. It’s not just individuals – it’s the system … Savile exposed the problems with the middle management at the BBC, which clogs everything up … it is amazing that they can get any programmes done at all.”
Hall will no doubt be aware of this himself – his message to staff may well even have hinted at it – and Bragg pointed out that he had wielded the axe (or sword) before at the Royal Opera House. But it may be quite another task to put a BBC purge into practice.
Some 13 years ago, Greg Dyke famously waged war on bureaucracy and red tape at the organisation with his “cut the crap, make it happen” campaign. While he was fairly successful in the endeavour, it was a slow process – and the scandal that dispatched Entwistle proved that Dyke’s initiative had no permanent effect. The BBC has never been a corporation in favour of public bloodletting, with many people involved in the recent scandals “moved sideways” rather than actually being fired. Former Newsnight boss Peter Rippon was offered curatorship of the BBC’s online archive; and even those who were sacrificed – such as Entwistle – received huge and controversial payouts.
In the worst-case scenario, Hall may find that the multiple layers of middle management have developed a resistance to change in their current structure – and have had plenty of time to see him coming since his appointment was announced in November last year. Bragg may be calling for a “bonfire of the middle managers”, and Hall may well agree with him. But whether it can actually be achieved is quite another matter.