BBC Chair Vows to Cut Senior Executive Posts, Improve Transparency

Chris Patten P

UPDATED: In Turin, Italy, Chris Patten discusses challenges and a possible renaissance of the BBC and European public broadcasters, calling for "the courage to champion big ideas."

LONDON – BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten said Sunday evening that the U.K. public broadcaster is planning to cut the number of senior managers from around 2.5 percent of its workforce to about 1 percent by 2015.

In a speech at the TV & Radio Museum in Turin, Italy, as part of the annual Prix Italia event, Patten, head of the governing body of the BBC, also discussed recent challenges and criticism of public broadcasters across Europe, arguing that continuing cost cutting, more transparency and increased accountability were needed.

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And he acknowledged that the BBC has been too slow to analyze and publicly address recent missteps and scandals, such as the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal and excessive severance payments.

But he also suggested that public broadcasters could experience a renaissance if they take the right steps.

"There is an idealistic case to be made for public service broadcasting," he emphasized. "For so long as the public has a strong connection with PSBs, market failure will not be the only test of whether they should continue to exist."

Added Patten: "To preserve that connection, we must continue to earn respect. That means scrupulous attention to openness, transparency and value-for-money. It demands fearless journalism, distinctive programming and the courage to champion big ideas."

Patten also signaled that the BBC would, as observers have predicted, go into upcoming negotiations for its future license fee from U.K. taxpayers, which funds the broadcaster, after the current arrangement expires in 2016 with modest expectations. "Adequate and secure funding is probably more desirable than a generous but insecure income," he said. "Certainly the public, who foot the bill one way or another, will respect us more if we ask only for what is strictly necessary."

Constrained funding "throws up difficult choices, which compel us to preserve only the best of what we do," he said. "Necessity being the mother of invention, it also prompts new ideas for working more efficiently."

The BBC Trust chairman Sunday also mentioned "first tentative steps into a renaissance, which will have the Internet at its heart -- a world which is fast, immediate, personalized, interactive and social."

Said Patten, "Both the Internet and the public service broadcasters form part of the public realm. Both are fundamentally democratic. By bringing together the creativity of our program makers and the social and personal elements of the Internet, we can unleash something exceptional."

He cited a digital partnership between the BBC and Britain's Arts Council that has launched a free digital arts service as an example of such successful online collaborations.

In his speech, entitled "Public Service Broadcasting in the 21st Century: Renaissance or Retreat?" Patten also said that "the assured funding, which furnished public service broadcasting with such strength and confidence for so long, also sowed some seeds of weakness."

He explained, "Guaranteed income, coupled to economic prosperity and the rapid expansion of first radio, then television and more recently the Internet, created a broadcasting elite. That elite enjoyed -- and in some cases, still enjoys -- secure jobs, high salaries and generous pensions ... perhaps inevitably there was a degree of complacency about the management of public money."

That led to over-management, while the goal of independence meant that "we were unused to external scrutiny," Patten continued, adding that when he arrived at the BBC a little more than two years ago, he found "too many bosses who worked hard, but were paid too much and presided over processes and relationships of labyrinthine and often unnecessary complexity."

The BBC has started to address these issues. "Executive pay is falling. Reward for the director general has been cut by almost 50 percent. Pensions have been reformed. Private health care is being phased out," Patten said. "But there is further to go. There are still too many senior managers, around 2.5 percent of the workforce at the last count. I’d like to see this cut to more like one percent by 2015 at the latest so as to create a smaller group of people more clearly accountable for spending the license fee."

A BBC Trust spokeswoman said that the governing body of the BBC first targeted such senior manager reductions by 2015 in a strategy plan in 2011.

Emphasized the BBC Trust chairman: "It has been, and will continue to be, a painful process but it is necessary if we are to secure public confidence. Other public broadcasters are taking similar steps and for some, I know, the reductions have been more draconian."

The rise of new technologies and new competitors has meant that "the comfortable monopolies and duopolies, on which public service reputations were founded, are a fading memory," Patten also said Sunday. "And as a new era of austerity bites, politicians and competitors look on publicly funded broadcasters with occasionally greedy eyes."

Some wonder why in a world of so much media choice public service broadcasters funded by license fees or taxes are still needed, he observed.

"It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the second half of the 20th century, public service broadcasters effectively democratized art, culture and education -- putting what had been the preserve of the wealthy, the metropolitan and the learned within the grasp of all," Patten argued.

He also cited "the encouragement of minority languages and programming, the pivotal role played in the extension of democracy in the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, support for formal learning" and other accomplishments of public broadcasters.

Concluded the BBC chair: "Certainly then, we can be proud of what the public service broadcasting model has achieved in the past, but we can’t rest on those laurels."

Patten said recent missteps at the BBC and other European public broadcasters must be addressed to give audiences continued confidence in their contributions and importance.

"I’m confident viewers and listeners understand that broadcasters cannot do their jobs without occasionally making some serious editorial mistakes or financial misjudgments," he said. "But they expect those responsible to admit it and explain it when they do. The BBC is not alone in having aggravated both financial and editorial lapses in recent years by failing to provide quick and accurate accounts of what actually happened."

Acknowledged Patten: "In our case it has cost us a good deal of money to put right."

And he admitted: "I think we have been too slow to embrace the need for openness and honesty when things go wrong."

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The BBC Trust chairman on Sunday also lauded other European public broadcasters. "Here in Italy, RAI has stood as a bulwark against the worst excesses of those who see audiences simply as a means to make money," he said.

And he lauded the European Broadcasting Union for over many years "sharing news, sport and music between public service broadcasters across the continent and beyond."

Patten's speech aired on BBC Radio.

The Prix Italia is an international TV, radio and online award that was established in 1948.

Twitter: @georgszalai