The New Closed Shop

News stories don’t make a splash anymore, they bleed.  We hear grim noises and the odd scream, but it only gets our full attention when there’s a red stain emerging from under the abattoir door.

This is particularly true when it comes to stories about the media; such as Hacking, Jimmy Savile and the subsequent miss-steps over naming a prominent (and very innocent) Tory Grandee by ‘Newsnight’.  It’s very ironic of a business that is all about ‘show’ that it keeps so much concealed, and when a vein is opened, it doesn’t stop until the floor is sticky.

The latest spasm of one haemorrhaging carcass happened yesterday, with Chris Patten justifying George Entwistle’s pay-offs, his full yearly salary, his fat pensions, his this, his that.  Contracts were mentioned.  They were mentioned a lot.  We as the licence fee payers were, apparently, very lucky to get off this lightly.

To the ordinary man watching News Online on his phone on the Clapham Omnibus, this seems staggering.  Surely if a man goes on Television after patently demonstrating that he’s not up to his job, and tells us he is resigning, then any contract is invalidated by the act of him going out the door?  It doesn’t matter if he did it with ‘dignity’ or as an ‘honourable man’.  Just piss off, why don’t you.

A disgruntled employee in an office, say, does not make a deal with his company, that in return for not telling his boss he can stick his job up the arse and emptying the stationary cupboard, he can get his salary for the next twelve months.  He has resigned.  He has not taken voluntary redundancy, and he really shouldn’t be applauded for it.

George Entwistle was brought down by an incredible interview on ‘Today’, when his complete inability to explain his actions, and his gobsmacking defence of not being on top of this grisly, unfolding mess was his plaintive cry of ‘I was writing a speech!’  You could hear the ‘thud’ as John Humphrys’ jaw hit the floor.

Incurious George

This was not the first revealing interview on ‘Today’ involving a DG.  A few years ago, Mark Thompson was asked why, at the height of the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross controversy, that because he was on holiday at the time, he had to fly himself (and his family) back at the License Fee Payer’s expense.   Mark huffed, and he spluttered, and he said something like:  ‘Well you couldn’t expect me to abandon them out there?’

Well yes, Mark, we did expect that, or to put it another way, we expected you to pay for your family’s travel expenses.

Your family was, I’m guessing, staying in a very nice five star hotel in a very nice part of Europe.  The very idea that they had to accompany you home on a turd-polishing exercise that was purely part of your job is absurd.  You were paid handsomely to do that job (six times more than the previous Director General), and you actually expected this unnecessary expense to come out of someone else’s pocket other than your own?  That was the real scandal, and as so many real scandals are these days, obscured by another smaller scandal, which was shinier and more fun.

But Mark and George’s comments are a symptom of the insanity of media management in Britain today, a self-interested cartel as poisonous and debilitating to Television production as the militant unions in the 70s and 80s.

Whenever one self-interested group takes over a business, Television or otherwise, there are signs.  Process becomes more important than outcome; outrageous amounts of money are spent on something that doesn’t benefit the consumer; standards suddenly drop for no apparent reason.  Incomprehensible jargon abounds, which means nothing, simply a self-screening method for groups to create an impression that they are indispensable.  There are merry-go-rounds of jobs for the boys, where remuneration is an end in itself, not an incentive to do better.

The concept of an entire Union striking because an actor moved a prop is no more absurd than the ethos displayed by those two DG interviews; the idea that programmes are cancelled due to disputes not remotely related to their production is no more ridiculous than the closing of regional radio stations while at the same time putting up huge constructions of steel and glass across the country, buildings commissioned by managers, to house rooms of managers for endless management meetings.  Not for studios, or rehearsal rooms, or writer’s rooms, just rooms full of chairs.

Mark Thompson trying not to masturbate at the sight of empty soulless offices.

The money spent on the refurbishment of Broadcasting House exceeded the amount used to create the Millennium Dome – and for what?  What benefit to the taxpayer?  There are hundreds of managers in the BBC that have ‘communication’ in their job titles, but none have seen fit to communicate to the License Payer why any of this is necessary; in fact, as we have seen, management structures have been created so that managers don’t have to justify their management decisions; a powerful echo of those overmighty TV unions in decades past, creating systems and rules so they don’t have to do the jobs they’re employed to do.

A decade ago I worked at Channel 4, where I found it over-managed and confusing.  Editorial interference was routine, contradictory and intrusive.  There were incredible layers of management, jargon, and soon after that the station got into severe financial trouble.  The Chief Executive, of course, was Mark Thompson.   Sound familiar?  Mark left the BBC with a billion pound pension black hole, a reduced licence fee, a ridiculously expensive migration to Central London and Salford, an incredible brain drain of talent, and a costly land sale of Television Centre.  By any standards that you define ‘management’ that was a failure of management, yet definitions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ do not exist at this level, as his happy recruitment by the New York Times suggests.  But then again, the US is developing a track record of welcoming head-scratchingly bad British exports; just look at Piers Morgan replacing Larry King…

Let’s go back to that Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand debacle.  One of the biggest sticks that the BBC was biffed with at the time was Jonathan Ross’s huge salary, paid to him by the BBC for his services.  There was justifiable outrage at his package, and a predictable witch-hunt for over-paid talent.  But again, that was the Press looking at something exciting and shiny and missing the deeper point.  The reason why this particular ‘talent’ was paid so much was also a symptom of management bureaucracy; a coward’s charter where ‘talent’ is sorted into people who were ‘assets’ to be retained and flattered, in order to show off ‘the brand’, and those they could afford to completely ignore.  The inflated salary to above-the-line talent was only one half of the equation, the reduction in quality of treatment to other ‘talent’ that they could afford to offend is the other.

If you watch an episode of ‘Doctors’ or any daytime drama, chances are you are watching actors wearing their own clothes, and who have been asked to drive themselves to the set.  It’s likely those actors were required to audition on the other side of the country, travelling hundreds of miles with no travel expenses offered.  If  they are ‘lucky’ enough to get the job, they are then are asked to work for salaries that have been depressed to a fraction of what they were in years past.  They are directed by trainees on work experience, and the scripts are written by writers who are part of ‘new talent’ schemes that mean their work is unpaid, and in order to be paid a proper rate, have to produce a series of scripts for practically nothing, after which they are usually discarded for more ‘new talent’ graduates.  Contracts are sloppily written and usually ignored, gambling that the ‘talent’ they are dealing with has insufficient funds or is scared about withdrawal of further work to actually sue.

This contempt is not new, granted; back in the 80s, actors were not allowed in the BBC car park.  Salaried staff, such as cleaners (who finished at five) were allowed, but young actresses who finished filming, more often than not at ten o clock at night, had to walk to their cars on an unlit road to a field in the middle of nowhere, which was where the ‘artistes’ were allowed to park.  The difference today is, that contemptuous attitude has now been packaged and processed and brought within a corporate ethos.  Nowadays, as a freelancer I’ve tried to use BBC premises to work on BBC shows.  I have been invited to ‘hot desk’, on a computer, which is usually broken, set between the open doors of the BBC white city building and the canteen, so caught between a howling gale and the stink of over-fried food.  I believe a similar technique is used in fast food restaurants to encourage customers to finish up and piss off as soon as is humanly possible.

This attitude to ‘talent’ is a bit of a mystery, as this is not reflected in the American model, where writers and actors at every level are well cared for, well remunerated and given incentives to work for studios.  The BBC attitude is a hangover from the time when it was a grubby idea to even work for Television, and that the ‘talent’ told everyone who listened that it was a shameful stopgap while more prestigious theatre work came along.  American television, borne in the tradition of cinema, never had that ingrained snobbery.

British television has management that aspires to the American model, but only when it comes to their own jobs, where remuneration is enormous, and there is an expectation that if you reach a certain level with a television company, you should leave that job as a millionaire.  The contradiction here is that UK television has never been based on the American model, and is moving further and further from it.  Like the British Film industry, it is not large enough; there is not enough quality comedy or drama to justify giving payouts to managers that mean they never have to work again.  Most of the on-screen product is cheap, and made on the fly.  UK TV is what it always was, a cottage industry relying on raw talent of actors, directors, journalists, writers and technical staff to punch above its’ weight.  It does not need layers of management to harness this.   There is no ‘risk’ involved in their world, unlike the US model where the stakes are much higher, success and failure are tangible, measurable things, and most US execs are fired several times in their careers.  If you removed most of the UK management, it would not make the slightest bit of difference as to what happens on the screen.  Their removal would probably make a lot of things better, and no-one but them would shed a tear for their passing –   just like the breaking of the closed shop in the late 80s.

Even today we shudder when the phrases ‘Work to rule’ and ‘Closed Shop’ are uttered, but in years to come I think we will also cringe when we remember the moment when during a parliamentary select committee enquiry, George Entwistle pointed out he was never ‘Head of Television’, just ‘Head of Vision’.

The ‘Telly’ bit is obviously superfluous these days.  But we knew that already.

One thought on “The New Closed Shop

  1. My old documentary lecturer at Bournemouth used to ask us, “Which is the most important? Process? Or content? If you think process is more important, I have nothing much left to tell you…” Presumably that’s why he became a lecturer on a media course at Bournemouth in the 1990s – he wouldn’t play the game.

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