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Things getting worse for BBC

Brand, budget causing problems for network

LONDON — A bit like the economic crisis, the storm engulfing the BBC just got worse.

Of course, the two are linked because the more trouble commercial media outfits find themselves in as advertising tails off, the more they resent the publicly funded BBC.

What the BBC needs at a time like this is someone who can clearly articulate its vision and explain why it deserves its £3 billion ($4.5 billion) a year budget.

Ideally, that person should be its director-general Mark Thompson. But he hasn’t been having much success of late.

He is still riding public outrage over lewd phone calls made by BBC stars Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand in a BBC 2 radio show to actor Andrew Sachs last month, which prompted 42,000 complaints and still refuses to evaporate.

The BBC Trust’s report on what has become known as Sachsgate, published Nov. 21, paints a dismal picture of management failure at the world’s biggest pubcaster and adds to the impression that a lack of joined-up thinking exists in the upper echelons of the BBC. 

Consider the following exchange last week between a prominent politician and BBC chairman Michael Lyons in the U.K. parliament.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the culture, media and sport committee, asked Lyons whether the BBC’s announcement that Ross’ job was safe was premature, given that the Trust had not yet published its report on the controversy.

Lyons replied: “There are many aspects of this affair which I would like to have seen handled differently. I am sure in the last week the BBC has done a few things I wish it hadn’t — it’s a big organization.”

You can say that again.

The Trust’s findings on Sachsgate highlight a breakdown in management procedures at the BBC. The show was prerecorded and the offensive item could have been cut.

As Trust member, Richard Tait, put it, “There was a catalog of editorial failures.” Two senior execs have quit and there may be more.     

But the BBC seems to be veering further toward the ridiculous. 

Controversy blew up again last week regarding the Nov. 19 exit of former BBC political commentator John Sergeant from “Strictly Come Dancing,” the format on which ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” is based Stateside.

Judges of the competish had become increasingly irritated that Sergeant remained in the show thanks to viewers’ votes while more talented hoofers were eliminated.

The judges wanted him out because they said, accurately, that Sergeant couldn’t dance — or, as one of them put it rather unkindly, his footwork resembled “a pig in Cuban heels.”

That the former journo possessed two left feet as he took to the floor with Marilyn Monroe look-alike Kristina Rihanoff made him the viewers’ darling.

To see the pair in action was hugely entertaining, but “the people’s John Travolta” said he’d had enough.

His continued presence was, in his words, “a joke too far.” He said there was a real chance of him winning the contest and, by implication, eroding the show’s credibility. “Strictly Come Dancing” is meant to reward ballroom skills not comedy routines.

Cue national outrage as newspaper pundits and the public complained in their thousands that the BBC had robbed them of one of the few bright spots in the weekend TV schedules.

Such was the flood of complaints that the “Strictly Come Dancing” website crashed as a reported 4,000 viewers registered their disapproval.

We will never know if Sergeant was told to quit by the BBC. What we do know is that the hoo-hah over the Sergeant cha-cha-cha is another PR disaster for the BBC.

In ordinary times, Sergeant’s exit would not have caused a media feeding frenzy.

But, as we all know, these are far from ordinary times. The incident has, bizarrely, added to the sense of crisis that has descended on a BBC that seems increasingly out of step with public opinion.

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