Wednesday 22 March 2023

The BBC Classical Music Cuts, or, We Must Have Accountability and Standards in Senior Public Appointments

 Just over ten days ago now I wrote at length here about the BBC's new classical music strategy, of which the most notable element is the proposal to close the BBC Singers and to make 20% cuts to the three English orchestras (BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Concert Orchestra). I asked a whole series of questions about the evidence (& mostly lack of it) underpinning the strategy and about the strategy itself.

Since I published that blog post, public criticism of the cuts and the strategy has gathered pace. A letter was leaked which is damning of BBC management's conduct in relation to this strategy and particularly the BBC Singers closure (the letter was also reported on by The Times). Later in this blog I will attempt to summarise what has so far been said and done and indicate the steps readers can take to amplify that criticism should they wish.

However, my focus here is on what I regard as the key issue with the BBC's response, or rather lack of it so far, which speaks to other recent problems at the corporation and to the broader damage that has been done to how publicly funded organisations operate by the current government.

Publicly funded organisations like the BBC should be subject to standards of competence and accountability. This is all the more the case for individuals who hold senior managerial positions in such organisations and receive very substantial salaries. The behaviour of senior BBC management both in approving the original classical music "strategy"/press release and in their subsequent response to the significant protests and even more significant questions asked of that strategy, demonstrates that those standards are very substantially eroded. This should be a matter of concern to all of us, whatever our views on the specifics of this particular case.

Let us start with the strategy itself. If you are a Manager (on a substantial salary) in the public sector, and you have ultimate executive responsibility for a strategy on a particular issue, then the taxpayer (in this case the licence fee payer) has the right to expect that that strategy, particularly where it involves job losses, possesses a rigorously constructed argument, underpinned by appropriate and sufficient evidence. This is not the case with the classical music "strategy" as I and others have shown.

Further, if a strategy not so based, is then subjected to legitimate and substantive criticism, the licence fee payer has the right to expect that senior management, who are responsible for the strategy, will respond to the substantial questions. Of course this may not be pleasant for the managers concerned (though had they developed the strategy robustly in the first place they could have avoided the situation) but it is one of the main things by which such individuals may justify their positions - in other words, not by doing the nice bits of the job (accepting awards, opening new buildings, claiming credit for commissions) but by dealing with the nasty bits - in this case publicly accepting ownership of cuts and publicly responding to legitimate criticism of them and the "strategy" underpinning them.

Since the odd interview immediately following the original press release, I have not seen one senior BBC manager give a single interview or respond in substance in any other way. These individuals appear to be assuming that they can get away with doing this. They may, sadly, be right, but it is a terrible indictment of the standards of our public life if they are able to do so.

Now, if this was a one off for the current senior BBC management, it might be said that perhaps I should be more forgiving about it. But it isn't. We've just seen a similarly woeful piece of senior management mishandling with the Lineker episode. To be clear, this is irrespective of what your view may be of Lineker's tweets. First, if you take a senior presenter off air in that way then I would expect the manager concerned (in this case the Director General) to have gamed out likely scenarios that might follow so that preparations could be made in advance to manage those scenarios. I think it is completely clear from the fiasco of 11-12th March that no such planning was undertaken before the Lineker decision was made. Secondly, once it becomes clear you have a fiasco on your hands an effective manager would take immediate and rapid steps to get the situation back under control. Again, it was very clear over the weekend in question that there was no such managerial grip. Finally, once a senior manager has got a fiasco under control (as the Director General eventually did on Monday 13th) such a manager would make clear that a proper investigation of a situation, which had evidently been very poorly handled, would be undertaken. And because this is a publicly funded organisation, the public (or the licence fee payers if you prefer) should reasonably be expected to be reported to on what the outcome of that investigation was, and what steps management proposed to take to prevent a recurrence. Instead the Director General appears to be behaving as if nothing really went wrong, and certainly as if there is no particular mismanagement on his part for which he should be answerable.

I suggest all this has its roots in our current governmental culture. That's to say we have a government for whom, in recent years, mismanagement has been the norm, and one which seeks to evade responsibility for that mismanagement far too frequently. That culture has got into other publicly funded organisations either through direct appointment (I needn't rehearse here the significant ethical problems with the appointment of the current BBC Chair) or indirectly because the wider environment has made acceptable such behaviour. It seems unlikely that my writing one blog about this will do anything about it, but it's about the only thing I have the power to do. And I refuse to close my eyes and say all this is acceptable, there's nothing we can do.

The BBC should be one of the great organisations of this country. I don't want to see it destroyed (though plenty on the government benches do and lacking the courage to own that policy themselves are seeking to enact it by other means). And so all we can do is to fight for what it should be. To fight for accountability and standards in its management and governance. To be, as my co-religionist George Fox wrote in 1663 "of good faith and valiant for Truth." 

Bluntly the conduct of senior BBC management in this matter thus far has been shameful. It is not too late for redemption. I continue to hope a call for accountability and standards may be heard.

What Steps Can You Take?

1) Sign the petition - at the time of writing over 141,000 have already signed.

2) Complain direct to the BBC or to your MP. This blog post provides the e-mail addresses for three of the senior BBC executives involved, a link to the BBC complaint form, a link which allows you to find the contact details of your MP and a short text you can either use verbatim in your communications or adapt - It is worth noting the laziness of the BBC response others have received which is little more than a regurgitation of the original press release (the serious inadequacies of which we have previously discussed).

What Steps Have Others Taken?

There have been a series of collective letters from different classical music sub-groups protesting the closure decision - almost all the current conductors of and composers/artists in association with the BBC Performing Groups (many of whom, see for example the Twitter feeds of Chief Conductor, BBCSO Sakari Oramo and Principal Guest Conductor, BBCSO Dalia Stasevska have been vocal in protest on social media), nearly 800 composers (a public statement from the great John Adams attracted particular attention), the UK's freelance professional choral ensembles (notably one of the groups that in theory the BBC press release seemed to be promising more air time to by axing the Singers), 220 amateur choirs with over 18,000 members, the chief conductors of all the European radio choirs, past and current winners of the BBC Young Musicians competition, a group of our leading classical singers (including current and former members of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme), the UK's specialist music schools and the UK's classical music publishers.

 Notable individuals and organisations have also spoken out. Those I spotted include the Shadow Minister for the Arts and Civil Society Barbara Keeley, MPs Anna Firth and Stephen Doughty, the Principal & Chair of the Royal Academy of Music, the Michael Tippett Foundation, the former Cabinet Minister David Miliband, and the podcaster and commentator Alistair Campbell. It was also reported this morning that Cabinet ministers (or at least Dowden, the quotation from Mordaunt in the piece is more ambivalent) have expressed concern - although they have a get out from actually doing anything of BBC independence and there's no question it would be problematic if the government openly told the BBC to reverse course - though if this is the only way to stop these cuts we might have to accept it as the lesser of two evils. There have also been plenty of letters to the editors of various newspapers and criticism in a number of Radio 4 interviews.

There has also been commentary from various arts journalists, perhaps most notably late last week when The Times's Richard Morrison proposed that a boycott of the BBC Proms might be required. What has been much less in evidence is front page coverage, although the management failures are as egregious as those exposed by the Lineker debacle (arguably more so since they may result in costing multiple employees their livelihoods).

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