Raymond Snoddy on media: BBC's bow to independents is sleight of hand

This week, the foundations of the BBC will crumble with the submission to the governors of proposals for thousands of job losses. Will it be the most radical transformation in the Corporation's history or a damp squib to create the illusion of change and bamboozle the government?

All the signs are that it will be the BBC's usual smoke and mirrors approach, rather than a thorough look at working practices. The great plan amounts to little more than seeking joint ventures for, or full privatisation of, BBC Broadcast, which is responsible for everything from broadcast play-outs to subtitling, and BBC Resources. The wheeze is almost an open secret, with chief operating officer John Smith even telling Ariel, the BBC's staff newspaper, that he was open to suggestions on the issue.

What a result. Without really trying, thousands of jobs are taken off the BBC payroll and transferred, on the same terms, to a body that would contract its services back to the BBC. The model is already in place in the shape of BBC Technology. The same people come to work in the same place, in the same way - they just aren't BBC staffers anymore.

Without careful scrutiny there is a danger of the BBC paying more for services formerly run in-house, although a key ingredient included in the deal for BBC Technology was a guarantee of substantial savings.

Watch out, then, for all the dire predictions of major job losses turning out to be little more than a structural sleight of hand. And, just in case the government is not impressed, BBC management can always deploy the independent shuffle.

For a BBC that has found it difficult to meet its 25% independent quota, it is remarkable that it should offer to put another 25% of production out to competition. This means, in theory, that the independent sector could corner up to 50% of non-news and current affairs output.

So, why are the indies less than ecstatic?

It goes like this: one reason that the number of BBC staff soared to 28,000 under Greg Dyke was the move to turn freelance workers into staffers.

According to some estimates, as many as 6000 could have been involved.

So, another wave of the wand and thousands of staffers can be turned back into freelances. Naturally, these voluntary freelances would take contracts for independent productions with them. So, the number of BBC staff melts and the independent quota rises to 35% or even 40%, with only 3% of real resources transferred to the existing independent sector, according to independent producers organisation Pact.

The third wheeze involves the transfer of mainstream services such as Radio Five Live to Manchester, which will actually lead to increased costs.

The future of the governors will be determined by what sort of BBC emerges from the current activity. Above all, they had better be sure the manipulation of jobs being planned adds up to more than window-dressing.

The trouble is that everyone has painted themselves into a corner by the promise of announcements on 7 December. This is insane. After all, the government's Green Paper of proposals isn't due until early next year. The BBC should come up with its own 'green paper', instead of decisions.

If the governors do not demand proper business plans on the implications and costings of all these wheezes, they do not deserve to survive. And if this takes longer than 7 December, so be it.


- The BBC sources its programmes from in-house programme makers, the independent production sector and freelance contributors. It is required to source 25% of commissions from the independent/freelance sectors.

- BBC-made programmes include The Office and Strictly Come Dancing. Independently-produced shows include Have I Got News for You? and those from freelance contributors include Clocking Off and The Vicar of Dibley.

- As part of the BBC's vision for its future, it has committed to a fairer partnership with the independent/freelance sector, including establishing a level playing field between in-house and independent programme makers in all areas.

- It also plans to exceed the 25% independent quota across all genres - the independent sector already accounts for more than 50% of commissioning in entertainment programming.


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