Game, set and match to PD James on BBC’s ageism and overpaid directors

It might seem a strange subject for the first of the year, but the Beeb – and Radio 4 in particular – is such an important asset that I thought it merited highlighting.

PD James was born in 1920, just three years before John Reith became its first general manager, so she’s well qualified to question Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, on the BBC’s current mission, programmes and management.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 invited guest editors to run part of its daily programme every day last week and Thursday was the turn of Baroness PD James, a life peer and renowned crime writer. The whole interview can be listened to here.

The two points that really struck me were PD James’s acute questioning on ageism in the BBC and its top-heavy management structure, with over 37 managers earning more than the Prime Minister.

The BBC’s own website is no doubt about the importance of its management: as the history section proudly proclaims, the early managers, Reith included, frequently boasted of their influence:

While money was far from Reith’s prime consideration, he did seem to glory in the status of his job.  On one occasion he invited the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Randall Davidson to his flat in London. The Archbishop said he liked piano music, so Reith rang up the BBC’s director of music Stanton Jeffries.  A short time later, Jeffries playing Schubert’s Marche Militaire came over the radio for the Archbishop’s benefit.  Another admirer was the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. At a private dinner, Baldwin spoke about a perk of being PM: he had been driven to an engagement on the wrong side of the road to avoid the London traffic.  Reith topped that.  He told Baldwin he could pick up the phone in his study, give two simple orders to the BBC and his voice would be transmitted to the homes of several million people around the country.  ‘He agreed that that was more impressive than his car exploit.’  A later Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Cosmo Lang told Reith: ‘Whoever holds your job is, or should be, the most influential man in the country.’

Cosmo who?  Well, he was the son of a Presbyterian minister … and his middle name was Gordon!  Sounding remarkably dejavue-ish? Well, there any superficial similarities end became Lang gave up his earlier ambition to enter politics and instead became Archbishop of York (1908–1928) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1928–1942).  As for his opinion about the influence of the media, he was about right… the press and celebrities still garner far more support and influence than do politicians or indeed church leaders.

However, getting back to the BBC and PD James, Baroness James started by asserting that over the years our much loved public-service broadcaster has grown into a “very large and unwieldy ship… sinking close to the Plimsoll line”,  taking on more cargo and more officers in well-appointed cabins.   James attacked what she called the “huge great waste of middle management…. a bureaucracy which is very difficult indeed to justify”.  With over 375 managers  earning in excess of 100k and 37+ earning more than the Prime Minister, Director-General Mark Thompson and the BBC were taken to task for the unnecessary layers of management (with near-identical remits), inflated salaries and a lack of clarity about what this monument of independent broadcasting should be doing in today’s world.

Now that we’ve reached the second decade of the 21st century, you’d have thought that (gender-related) ageism would be a subject that had long been relegated to the history shelf, but not so.  Two recent incidents drew public attention to the fact that this is still very much a current problem: the “retirement” of one of the judges, Arlene Phillips, from one of the BBC’s most popular programmes,  Strictly Coming Dancing, and the news that the BBC was on the look out for a 50-plus female newsreader.  As Dame Joan Bakewell promptly pointed out on hearing the news:

“We get lots of jowly white-haired men – that’s no inhibitor of employment for them – but it seems to have been eliminator for women until now.”

So Phyllis spoke for many when she said that the search for a mature female newsreader “was a bit [understatement!] of an insult”.  You only need to look at some of the older women reporters – notably Orla Guerin – who are experts in their field and beat most of their male colleagues outright.  Orla’s reporting in Africa and the Middle East is always extraordinarily courageous and sensitive.   As for newsreaders, come back Moira Stuart, Anna Ford and Sue Macgregor…

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