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BBC in uproar and not a Twitter from @rupertmurdoch

October 23, 2012

Considering the gloating opportunities, @rupertmurdoch has been abnormally restrained. Apart from a terse but prescient: “Saville (sic)- BBC story long way to run. BBC far the biggest, most powerful organization in UK,” nothing has been said on the subject since October 14th.

Maybe the old boy has got bored with his favourite hobby, the British media. But I somehow doubt it. And his silence certainly can’t be attributed to not wanting to stick the knife in – as Hugh Grant, the “Scumbag Celebrity”, knows to his cost. No, @rupertmurdoch is surely waiting until the dish is sufficiently cold to make a mouthful of it.

And what a mouthful. The BBC has rightly made much of the fact that Savilegate (all crises these days are “-gates”, aren’t they?) has a silver lining. No other news organisation, they say, would be capable of an equivalently rigorous self-examination in the wake of such an error. “Mea culpa” is not, after all, a term you hear very often at News International – or anywhere else, for that matter, unless the lawyers so decree. But the BBC being more transparent is no guarantee that its senior executives are any less mendacious, self-serving and slippery than those of other media owners.

Today’s performance before the culture media and sport select committee by a nervous George Entwistle, now director-general, then director of vision (i.e. telly), left us in little doubt that Newsnight’s editor Peter Rippon is the one being lined up for the sacrificial knife. And it’s his blog what done it.

True, Rippon’s version of the facts leaves much to be desired. There are a number of errors in the post which make it apparent that, even looked at in the most charitable light, Rippon’s grasp of the situation was woefully inadequate. The point about not withholding information from the police, for instance, is downright misleading (whether deliberately so or not). That’s certainly conduct unbecoming in the editor of a programme of Newsnight’s calibre.

But all this proves very little, except that Rippon was desperate for some ex-post facto sticking plaster to justify a decision that he himself may have found incompatible with his professional ethics. The question is: how did he arrive at that decision? Hard evidence has yet to surface, but circumstantially there seem a number of things that just don’t add up. At one moment, Rippon is reported by the Newsnight editorial team to be upbeat about the Savile programme’s prospects; the next, he has decided to shelve it. Apparently, this happened very soon after he had informed the BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, of the programme’s content and intention. Boaden then told her boss, Entwistle. But, according to him, only in the most airy, abstract manner. With the result that this normally competent media professional entirely failed to recognise the Newsnight investigation might in, some way, undermine a lavish tribute programme shortly to be aired in Sir Jimmy’s honour – and make complete fools of the Corporation’s senior executives at the same time. That at least is what he is asking us to believe, since he clearly took no action to review the tribute programme.

Rippon, of course, is denying that Boaden gave him any advice beyond telling him to act according to his own lights. Whether that advice included a knowing wink and a nod, alluding to his future on the BBC career ladder, we shall probably never know. Boaden’s words are unrecorded, and she shows no sign of wishing to enlighten us further.

That said, maybe we should keep this affair in perspective. BBC executives may be dealing in half-truths and obfuscation, but they can hardly be accused of breaking the law. Unlike Trinity Mirror, publisher of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People, which is now facing civil actions over phone-hacking from former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and a number of other minor celebrities. Trinity Mirror’s senior management is, as it has routinely done since questions started to be voiced about Piers Morgan’s tenure as editor of The Mirror, denying any wrongdoing. But shareholders obviously don’t believe them. At one point, TMG shares dipped 12.5% today. Civil actions were the slow-burning fuse that eventually lit the powder-keg at News International.

As I say, the old boy is going to have a right old feast, once he gets round to serving it.

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Lancing the boil of celebrity culture

October 18, 2012

For years he wove a cynical circle of deceit around the community, perpetrating the most heinous misdeeds while masquerading as a benefactor of mankind.

Of course, there were a few whispers. Doubters who thought the myth he had wrapped around himself was too good to be true. Alleged victims of his corruption who knew for certain he was a Wrong ‘Un (or so they claimed).

But who were these people? The spiteful and envious, endeavouring to poison the reputation of a noble celebrity with unfounded gossip. Or worse, Society’s sad losers maliciously fabricating tales of victimisation for their own financial gain. And why should we take any notice of them when their intended target was such a fine, upstanding, pillar of the community?

Jimmy Savile – for now, still a still a Knight of the Realm and Knight Commander of the Star, by order of the Holy See; Lance Armstrong – for now, still 7-times winner of the Tour de France: what’s the difference? They were gigantic frauds and they’ve had a good laugh at the expense of us all. But now it’s all over. Jimmy remains an untouchable – in a technical sense, at any rate, since he is beyond the grave. Lance is a little less fortunate. His life-expectancy, in view of the cancer challenge and toxic artificial stimulants religiously ingested over the years, must be severely foreshortened. Alas, not so foreshortened that he can escape the hand of Justice clamping his shoulder and calling him to account; or the incessant righteous ‘told-you-so’ opprobrium that will now rain down on his already mired reputation.

Because that’s the thing about reputations. Once trashed, there’s no rehabilitation, no going back. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their  bones.

Who, a few months on, will want to remember that Savile, the child molester and serial pervert, was also a doer of good deeds whose work for charity raised an estimated £40m?

Who now will wish to recall that Armstrong’s reputation and sporting prowess, however achieved, was indispensable to the success of the Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded 15 years ago?

Last year $35.8 million went through the charity’s books, 82 per cent of which was passed on directly to research programmes.

Yes, they were both self-serving hypocrites, in the sense they pretended to a piety they richly did not deserve. But weren’t we all complicit in that hypocrisy as well? Not just institutions like the BBC, Stoke Mandeville Hospital, or sponsors such as Nike, Oakley and Anheuser-Busch – who clearly had a vested interest in nay-saying whenever allegations of inappropriate conduct surfaced; but the rest of us too, who were gullible enough to believe that our idols really don’t have feet of clay? After all, who’s looking at the feet when the object of veneration is walking on water?

So, if Armstrong’s sponsors are heading for the exit as fast as their own feet of clay will carry them, and Savile’s charity is now studiously engaged in an act of collective amnesia over its founder’s name, can we really blame them? They are just as obsessed with, and as gullible about, celebrity culture as the rest of us.


BSkyB – nearly the company with the UK’s biggest marketing budget

January 4, 2011

Will BSkyB soon become the UK’s biggest marketing company? It’s a sobering thought  – especially for those who, like culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, must now consider whether Rupert Murdoch and his son James are fit and proper guardians of the 61% of the broadcast media company they do not already own. What will they do with unfettered control of all that money – not so much when it is directed at ITV and the BBC (the case already), but at BSkyB’s non-broadcast rivals?

In fact, BSkyB is still some way from being the company with the biggest marketing budget. The latest Nielsen figures, which leaked out just before Christmas in The Telegraph, reveal that BSkyB has now moved into number two position behind Procter & Gamble in the advertisers’ league table: not quite the same thing, but the most reliable indicator we have in these matters. The main casualty – inevitably given what has happened to it – is the Central Office of Information. For some years the COI sat on, or very near, the top of the pile. Its fall from grace has been melodramatic: despatched from top to fifth place, with spending slashed 47% to settle – for now at – £112m. There’s no likelihood of it getting back.

BSkyB, on the other hand, increased its spend 20% to reach £161m. But even that wasn’t nearly enough for it to become top dog in the near future. P&G put on another third – giving it an unassailable lead at £189m. Unless of course BT, currently 7th with a spend of £104m, continues its phenomenal 44% multiplication of spend for the next three years (unlikely, I suggest).

These Nielsen figures are interesting indicators, but they need to be viewed with considerable caution. Although they purport to record expenditure to the end of the calendar year, there are a number of caveats; for example, there is no internet spend included for the last quarter (a significant omission). They are, moreover, merely a ratecard indicator: they do not tell us what was actually spent after discount. Finally, they do not record all forms of marketing activity. And some of these excluded sectors, like POP, are absolutely massive.

For all these imperfections, however, the Nielsen figures reveal a remarkable truth. BSkyB has become one of the UK’s most powerful companies, and it has done so in large measure through the intelligent application of marketing.


Vince hands BSkyB to Murdoch on a platter

December 21, 2010

It would appear the Scourge of Capitalism (aka business secretary Vince Cable) was bent on doing exactly what I earlier predicted. That is, committing a gross act of hypocrisy – in the clandestine manner of the bankers he so despises – by rigging the market to get the result he wanted.

This is the only reasonable interpretation of his unguarded remarks to two Telegraph undercover reporters about “declaring war on Mr Murdoch”. He is of course referring to his supposedly impartial role in adjudicating the acceptability of NewsCorp’s bid for the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. For the avoidance of doubt the guileless minister of the crown went on to explain to the two reporters – posing as constituents: “I have blocked it [the bid] using the powers that I have got and they are legal powers that I have got…”.

Actually, that last bit is a tad premature. Ofcom is not supposed to report back on whether there is a prima facie case for referral to the Competition Commission until December 31st. But Vince was clearly confident that he had Ofcom in his pocket and could press ahead with a referral on the public interest grounds of an infringement of “media plurality”. The beauty of such grounds is that they reside entirely in the realm of political value judgement rather than the rigorously factual analysis of any threat to competition. And given that Cable would have had the final word, Murdoch & Co were clearly going to be thwarted.

No longer. Vince is off the case (indeed, he is off any adjudication of media competition cases from now on), although he has narrowly managed to retain his job. And culture media and sport secretary Jeremy Hunt will take his place. As a Tory, Hunt does not carry Cable’s Lib Dem ideological baggage; and if he does harbour any personal animosity towards the Murdoch clan it has so far remained scrupulously off the record.

Which is just as well. In the circumstances he will find it politically excruciating to deliver the thumbs down. The European Commission has just waved through the bid on competition grounds. That leaves the public interest argument. But this, too, is looking increasingly shaky when assessed on any fair-minded basis – as it will have to be in the wake of Cablegate. The legal precedent was set when the last government forcibly caused BSkyB to divest most of its 18% stakeholding in ITV. Ironically, the stated grounds were that NewsCorp’s then 39% holding in BSkyB posed a threat to UK media plurality. If you’re already a threat to media plurality when you hold a controlling 39% interest in a company, how is owning the rest of the shares going to make a material difference?

As political fiascos go, this is a corker. The Scourge of Capitalism has ended up performing a humiliating act of public self-flagellation. In the process, he has damaged Ofcom’s independence and almost certainly brought about the result he most feared: the strengthening of Rupert Murdoch’s commercial interests.

En passant, he has also damaged The Telegraph – one of his allies in the Murdoch matter, if no other; although Cable can hardly be blamed for that. The Telegraph deliberately suppressed Cable’s anti-Murdoch comments, presumably on the grounds that they harmed its commercial interests. Only because some nameless Assangeite felt that editorial integrity had been inexcusably compromised did the scoop come into the capable hands of BBC business editor Robert Peston.

I bet they’re laughing up their sleeves at Osterley Park and Wapping. I can’t say I blame them.


Francis Maude’s Sword of Damocles leaves the COI’s future hanging by a thread

October 15, 2010

Clearly the future of the Central Office of Information, which has been around since 1946, is even more precarious than I – or I suspect its chief executive Mark Lund (left) – had imagined.

Not content with imposing an emasculating 40% cut on the COI’s 737-strong workforce, the Government is now openly toying with the idea of casting its eviscerated carcass onto the bonfire of the quangos.

The decision, which will not be finalised until the end of November, is in the hands of cabinet office minister Francis Maude. Maude’s views on the subject may readily be gauged by his recent actions. He has floated the idea of the BBC airing COI campaigns free of charge – presumably in place of the many self-indulgent programme trailers and cross-channel promotions which now clog our viewing. Indeed, he has gone further. Since media buying would, to the extent that campaigns are aired by the BBC and not commercial channels, become redundant, he has taken the logical step of opening negotiations with WPP over M4C’s £200m centralised media buying contract.

Strip out centralised media buying, and it is very difficult to see what else is propping up the rationale of the COI. Specialised consultancy advice? Increasingly unlikely. Such industry knowledge will be a rare commodity once the organisation has been cut to the bone. And if that is so, the road to dissolution begins to look like a four-lane motorway. As with other quangos facing the axe, any essential functions will be transferred to alternative organisations – here, the bigger-spending departments of state such as the DoH.

All this would be a terrible blow for commercial television (especially ITV, which carries the bulk of COI campaigns). But it is doubtful whether agencies (beyond M4C and the media buying community) would shed anything other than a few crocodile tears. Someone still has to make the ads; and Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, has made it abundantly clear that his agency for one would be right behind the Maude proposal. Others may be more muted, but it’s unlikely they will disagree with him.

If Maude gets his way, it will be the realisation of a terrible irony. Previous COI ceos – namely Carol Fisher and Alan Bishop – have fought tooth and nail over the past decade, ultimately successfully – to suppress a secession by departments of state.

But will Maude actually go through with it? Don’t underestimate the BBC’s ability to kick up a stink over this: it doesn’t like the Maude Plan any more than ITV, although for a quite different reason. The whole issue threatens to become mired in a heated “public interest” debate, pivoting on the BBC’s impaired political impartiality. What with the brouhaha over BSkyB (to refer, or not refer, Rupert Murdoch’s bid), I doubt that the coalition government will have the stomach to take on an alienated ITV and truculent BBC as well. No doubt about it, though, it’s a thin thread the COI’s future hangs by.


PD James Thompson onslaught kills off BBC private sector marketing experiment

October 13, 2010

Spare a thought for BBC director of marketing, communications and audience Sharon Baylay, who leaves next year – and not entirely of her own volition.

The axing of her position is a monument to the ineptitude of director-general Mark Thompson in front of a microphone. It was preordained from the moment that he allowed himself to be kebabed on the skewer of a little old lady’s forensic interviewing technique.

Cast your mind back to December 31st, 2009. PD James, the little old lady in question, was guest-editing the Today programme. I don’t know whether Thompson had a premonition he was going to be that morning’s toast. He certainly acted like a fox lamped by headlights when the crimewriter and former BBC governor moved in for the kill.

In her cross-wires were the 37-plus BBC employees who – inexplicably in her view – earned more than the prime minister. Thompson attempted to bat it off by justifying the salary of then BBC1 controller Jay Hunt, with her £1bn budget. But James was having none of this. She was not talking of Hunt and her kind, she said. Who were all these over-salaried bureaucrats with not a shred of creativity in their make-up? And in particular, this clan of clones with marketing and communications in their title, paid for by the taxpayer? Why, the litany is endless: there’s a director of marketing, communications and audiences on £300,000, and a director of communications on £225,000 – doesn’t he do what the other person’s supposed to do? Then there’s a director of brand and planning, a director of audiences… And so on. It begins to sound like an extract from the script of Yes Minister, only it’s for real.

At first sight, Baylay seems an identikit fit for an “over-salaried” bureaucrat. Her basic salary is £310,000 and her pedigree is not the BBC but Microsoft, where for 15 years she played a competent but fairly faceless role in a number of managerial positions, culminating in general manager of online services. But that’s to look at the appointment, which happened in May 2009, in the wrong light.

Baylay is less a techno-mandarin than the last of series of expensive imports from the private sector who have swelled the power and importance of the marketing function within the BBC. The first marketing director in any meaningful sense was Sue Farr, who had a background weighted more towards advertising than brand management. But that was no bad thing: in those days marketing, which was much more lowly in the BBC hierarchy than it is today, was largely about on-air ads, such as Perfect Day. Farr had another, unofficial, role. She was the publicly acceptable face of director-general John Birt, a skilful if robotic strategist and not someone you’d particularly want to invite to dinner.

Farr came a cropper with the advent of Greg Dyke as Birt’s successor in 2000. Dyke, probably the most successful and certainly the most popular d-g in recent times, suffered from no such interpersonal skill inhibitions as his predecessor. He wanted a “real” marketer who would oversee not only the BBC’s content and PR operations, but be at the heart of its audience research as well. And he eventually alighted on Andy Duncan, with his classic fmcg background at Unilever.

The early success of Duncan, reflected in the take-off of Freeview and his subsequent promotion to chief executive of Channel 4, set a precedent. It was reinforced by his successor, Tim Davie – once again equipped with impeccable fmcg credentials, this time Pepsi-bred. The difference between Davie – who moved on to become the BBC’s director of audio and music – and his successor Baylay really amounts to sector emphasis. At a time when media is ever more interactive and internet-driven, it made sense to appoint someone steeped in digital experience. And where better to look than Microsoft, which had been closely involved with the BBC in the development of the iPlayer?


Murdoch-bashing is the BBC’s best defence

October 8, 2010

Say what you like about BBC director-general Mark Thompson (and some do find him a bit antenna-challenged), he’s doughty in defence.

BBC's best defence?

Having got his hands on a big stick to club his bete noire and tormentor James Murdoch at this year’s MacTaggart Lecture, he’s now taken the media war to Murdoch Snr’s “home” terrain by  very publicly wading into the “Stop Murdoch getting Sky at any price” debate on America’s normally unremarkable public service television network (PBS). Thompson told the Charlie Rose programme that giving Murdoch what he wanted – the other 61% of BSkyB – would result in “a significant loss of plurality in our media market” and the “potential of an abuse of power.” In effect, it’s the old “Silvio Berlusconi” caricature – lovingly etched by Claire Enders – being given a new lease of life.

Whether a wholly-owned Murdoch Sky would really lead to an abuse of power I have no idea; beyond mentioning what people seem to conveniently forget in this debate – Murdoch’s imploding newspaper revenues. But the truth of the matter is less important than its plausible representation. And here – hats off – I must admire Thompson the tactician. Intelligently using the fewer resources at his disposal he has turned attack into the best form of defence. Like some latter-day Stonewall Jackson.

What Thompson has scented is a definitive change in the balance of UK media power which he is exploiting to the BBC’s advantage. It cannot have escaped notice that the regulatory authorities – prodded by the politicians – are spending an increasing amount of their time pursuing alleged abuses of BSkyB’s power – as instanced by investigations into its significant stake in ITV, and its control of premium sport and film content. What juicier opportunity to get politicians frothing at the mouth than pointing up the imminent prospect of Murdoch getting his hands on all of Sky’s £6bn revenues and £950m cashflow? Thompson nicely emphasised what’s at stake in his MacTaggart Lecture when he suggested Sky’s marketing budget alone dwarfs what ITV spends on its programmes. It now appears he has made common cause on the matter of Murdoch’s overweening power with some very odd bedfellows indeed: just about every other newspaper proprietor in the country.

And while the media and the politicians are diverted by the prospect of one long, uninterrupted, Murdoch-bashing fest, who’s going to be bothering with such pettifogging issues as bloated budgets, out-of-touch management, abuse of the internet media market and pension funds running amok at the BBC? Which should make for a fairly uninterrupted run-up to the next licence-fee negotiations.


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