LONDON — As the BBC goes from crisis to crisis, director general Mark Thompson’s credibility is at stake. His leadership style and strategy are on the line as heads roll following a series of gaffes, with the pubcaster prepping for a 12% cut in its workforce.
In the past few weeks, the head of flagship network BBC1, Peter Fincham, resigned over faked footage in documentary “A Year With the Queen” made by U.K. indie RDF Media and showcased at a fall season press launch.
Bizarrely, former BBC1 controller and “Imagine” arts show presenter Alan Yentob flip-flopped on whether he had included reaction shots of himself in “Imagine” programs, saying first that he had, and then that he had not.
“It was foolish of me to respond in that fashion,” Yentob said of his confession.
But then foolish things appear to be the order of the day at the pubcaster.
Last month, Richard Marson, editor of flagship children’s show “Blue Peter,” was sacked following more examples of viewer deception — one involving a viewer poll to name the program’s pet cat, when a name had already been decided upon.
So has the BBC taken leave of its senses? In the feverish atmosphere of an org grappling with accusations that it defrauded audiences via faked phone quizzes and doctored documentaries (while also having to plug a $4 billion funding gap), the pubcaster’s management looks increasingly vulnerable.
“Is the BBC in meltdown? No it isn’t, but the BBC does feel under threat,” says Stewart Purvis, a TV topper turned media professor at London’s City U. “Even the BBC’s harshest critics cannot trace a single fault line that connects all these incidents together. There is a coincidence of factors.”
The inquiry that triggered the resignations of Fincham and RDF Media’s creative director, Stephen Lambert, accused the BBC of “misjudgments, poor practice and ineffective systems.”
It said RDF’s cavalier approach to filmmaking led Lambert to edit a sequence filmed for the Queen docu to make it appear she had stormed out of a Buckingham Palace photo session with Annie Leibovitz, when she had not.
“This was a cavalier way of treating any footage, let alone the head of state going about her duties,” concluded the inquiry, undertaken by a former head of BBC Television, Will Wyatt.
“RDF initially told the BBC (the edit had been made) to make the sequence more attractive for potential clients (at last spring’s MIP). Subsequently, they withdrew this explanation and argued that the tape was just a taster, and that such compilations are often put together out of chronological order.”
Wyatt says the BBC must not cede so much editorial power to indie producers — a comment that may seem like a disconnect with program makers in nonfiction departments, where most job cuts are likely to occur.
In an interview with the Beeb’s inhouse publication Ariel, Thompson blamed Lambert, while saying that Fincham did the right thing in resigning.
“The publicity tape was an unfortunate mistake in which no one at the BBC had any intention to deceive the public or defame the queen,” Thompson says. “But Stephen Lambert at RDF behaved disgracefully in relation to the misleading tape.”
Still, many BBC middle managers are unimpressed by Thompson’s strategy of beefing up new-media activities and making fewer, but, it’s hoped, better, programs.
They see the director general as a hands-off leader short on people skills and devoid of vision for the pubcaster as it navigates the digital revolution. Unlike his predecessor, Greg Dyke, Thompson has encouraged indies at the expense of inhouse program makers.
Critics also wonder if he and former chairman Michael Grade botched government negotiations over the license fee and so helped create the current financial crisis.
However, press speculation that Thompson and his chief lieutenant, Jana Bennett, could be out looks unlikely — for now.
“The chair of the BBC Trust (the Beeb’s governing body) Sir Michael Lyons said in the summer that Thompson is effectively on trial, and gave him a year to sort things out,” Purvis says. “If he doesn’t deliver, they will find someone else who can.”