Update: Since this blog was written Chris Patten, chair of the BBC Trust, has decided to curb the very high levels of executive pay at the BBC – a first step to deal with the problem. But he will need to tackle how the managers control non journalist spending – such as IT contracts and property moves which cost licencepayers £160m.
Don’t get this blog wrong, this is not an attack on the BBC for wasting licence payers money on programmes. It is an attack on how the BBC has wasted tens of millions of pounds by not controlling the money it spends on the boring bits – the money spent on property, studios and digital equipment that go to make those programmes possible.
Two recent reports from the National Audit Office – the body that on our behalf examines whether our taxes are spent wisely – make very disturbing reading. They are into the BBC’s handling of some £2 billion of cash that is being spent on moves from London to Salford and Glasgow and back to Broadcasting House in London and into cutting edge digitisation of TV. I have written about this at length in The Journalist – the National Union of Journalists magazine see http://bit.ly/mCekbZ .
In a nutshell they show that up to £160m was wasted on these plans because of delays, a botched private tender and exposed a bad management attitude at the top.
As the auditors, not known for colourful phrases, said on people handling the studio move to Pacific Quay, Glasgow :“It was sometimes difficult to engage senior staff in decision-making about their area as some seemed to either not fully understand their responsibilities or take them seriously enough.”
To put in context the money lost was enough to run both BBC News Channel and BBC4 – or in radio terms the entire cost of running Radio Three and Four – for a year. That bad.
The reason why it matters is that the BBC is now having to make cuts to meet the government’s spending targets. Journalists are going to be sacked, programmes and parts of the BBC World Service , radio and TV channels closed down. It can ill afford to make mistakes in its boring bits.
I don’t mind paying a licence fee to hear Jim Naughtie and John Humphrys confronting a less than straight politician on the Today programme or see Ian Hislop and Paul Merton take the piss out of Boris Johnson on Have I got News for You? I certainly am keen on Panorama exposing scandals in private care homes. I like to be entertained by comedians like David Mitchell or the lewder Russell Howard on Live at the Apollo or dramas like Case Histories, Waking the Dead etc.
I do mind paying a licence fee for some useless manager to spend millions giving IT contractor Siemens a monopoly tender to digitalise TV which then falls apart. Or giving some property company £46m extra cash because BBC managers can’t get their act together to move back to Broadcasting House in time and have to extend their leases at Bush House.
So I think it is time the corporation got a grip on this. And what are they and Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, doing. Trying to bind the hands of the very body exposing this waste from doing its job properly.
Over a year in government nothing has been done. The head of the National Audit Office who has the wonderful name of Amyas Morse wrote to Mr Hunt last September trying to get three basic things done on behalf of viewers and listeners. He wanted unfettered access to information to the BBC, the right to decide what he wanted to investigate and the right to publish his findings when he and not the BBC wanted. Hardly revolutionary stuff.
Not granted yet. So how about some interactive reaction. If you think the man from the audit office should get his access on our behalf – send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org marked Amyas Morse ( as it says on their website). You think the BBC Trust is blocking this email email@example.com or contact its chairman Lord Patten at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Finally you could remind Jeremy Hunt that he is supposed to have sorted this. Try email@example.com . It is time the BBC had a metaphorical bomb put under it so it gets its act together and doesn’t waste another £160m.