Grade urged to take "fresh look"

BECTU has called on the new BBC Chair to review recent decisions like the sale of BBC Technology.

In an open letter to Michael Grade, who took over as BBC Chair this week, the union argues that the Corporation's Governors should distance themselves from the management, and take a more critical view of proposals put before them.

According to BECTU, the dependence of Governors on the same advisors as the BBC management had allowed flawed plans to sell off BBC Technology to win approval without challenge.

The union, which strongly opposes the sale of the 1400-employee subsidiary company, believes that the proposal makes no sense and will ultimately cost the BBC more in technology bills than it pays currently.

Grade is also urged in the open letter to campaign against "top-slicing" of the BBC licence fee - a proposal that some of the BBC's income should be creamed off to subsidise the public service obligations of other broadcasters.

Departed Director-General Greg Dyke wins praise from the union for improving "goodwill towards the management" which BECTU hopes will continue.

Open Letter to Michael Grade on his first day as new Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors.

On behalf of our members at the BBC may I congratulate you on your new appointment. You return at a particularly difficult time and as the largest union at the BBC (and in broadcasting nationally) I thought it might be helpful to set out some of the concerns of our members.

The biggest item on the agenda is charter renewal and there are those who would want to cut BBC funding by top slicing the licence fee. The idea that this money should then be given to commercial broadcasters to produce their own public service programmes whilst still presumably making a profit demonstrates its idiocy. By law the BBC already has to have 25% of its programming made by other independent broadcasters and this would push the proportion up to 35% causing thousands of redundancies with no obvious gain to the viewers and listeners.

It is also suggested that the BBC should only be allowed to make worthy public service programmes rather than popular ones. The BBC has a long record of making popular and commercially successful programmes such as "Walking With Dinosaurs" which could not have been made by any other British TV company.

The regulation of the BBC is also up for discussion and we assume that having just been appointed you would expect the Board of Governors to maintain its role overseeing the BBC. Certainly we would not want Ofcom to have any greater say over the BBC but we believe that there needs to be a clearer separation between the Governors and the Executive Committee and in future, to avoid any charge of rubber stamping, it would be better if the Governors had their own advisors rather than relying on the same sources as the Executive Committee. This would allow them to take a fresh look at any proposals put forward.

A case in point would be the current proposal to sell BBC Technology Ltd to a commercial company and then buy the service back. Given that BBC Technology is actually the nervous system of the BBC and is central to the convergence of broadcasting and information technology, it is a proposal which makes no sense. Any new owner will insist on making a profit on the operation so it is likely to cost the BBC significantly more than retaining it in-house. The Governors have been forced to rely on advice from the same source as the Executive Committee which could not be described as impartial, in our view this is a bad proposal which needs a fresh look.

Your most urgent task is to appoint a new Director General. You will be more aware than most that under John Birt staff morale was at an all time low. The arrival of Greg Dyke with less focus on systems and more on programme-making resulted in tremendous goodwill towards the management. Greg's sudden 'resignation' has dented that morale and the appointment of the right person will go some way towards preventing its evaporation. BBC programme makers need to know that there is someone in charge who is demonstrably enthusiastic about making great programmes on TV and Radio and, crucially, is prepared to defend the editorial independence of the Corporation.

We hope that you will resist attempts by the government both to interfere in the appointment process, and to try and exact revenge over Hutton during the negotiations on charter renewal.

In the past BECTU has had its disagreements with the BBC but we would hope to be able to continue the dialogue which we had with the office of your predecessor, Gavyn Davies which helped both sides to try and resolve any difficulties.

Yours sincerely,

Luke Crawley
Supervisory Official

19 May 2004