Reflections on #RTSRona

Sept 2011 - New NW BW Head & Shoulders (thumbnail)And so to the British Museum to witness the introductory Royal Television Society speech of Rona Fairhead (hashtag #RTSRona), the new chair of the BBC Trust. A great BBC occasion at the British Museum, or as one wag billed it – a line up of impressive relics supporting one of the great institutions of Empire. (My personal favourite was ‘talking about ‘Auntie’ in the ‘Mummy’ exhibit).

Those of us who witnessed the car crash that was Maria Miller’s introduction to the RTS quickly recognised that this was a very different event – albeit for a very different role. Maria Miller exposed herself, over a 40 minute period, to be a vacuous buffoon….and a badly briefed one at that. Rona Fairhead, it was quickly apparent, is a very impressive, very classy operator. However it is clear, at a time when we are still questioning the role of the BBC trust , that she is an establishment player through and through.  We need to see that she can combine this with being a new broom or a fresh voice, not just a refreshingly competent one. On top of this, she was being interviewed by Sir Peter Bazalgette, the nearest thing that the UK television industry has to royalty.

This led a number of people present to comment on Twitter about the overwhelming poshness of the occasion. The event was a three dimensional manifestion of Radio 4. The poshness reached its apogee when Sir Peter (‘Baz’ to his chums) selected the style guru Peter Yorke (he of ‘Sloane Ranger Handbook’ fame) to ask a question. I can’t remember what he asked but he sounded and looked sumptuous! Had Brian Sewell joined us at that point, all would have been complete.

From the opening moments of her speech we were aware that she has very quickly gone native. There is a curious phraseology that the BBC has created all for its self which repeats and repeats on these occasions. A requirement to ‘deliver our Public Value obligations’ gets trotted out endlessly. ‘ The public want us to deliver on ‘a Reithian mix of education not just entertainment’ is another favourite – even though I have never heard that expressed in research. ‘Accountability and transparency’ are ever present. After a promising start when she outlined clearly the four challenges that she saw the BBC facing, she quickly dropped into BBC platitude mode, and the event lost momentum.

The most difficult take-out was the fact that she failed to clarify the core confusion in her job role. We still are unsure whether the Trust is meant to be part of the BBC management or regulating them on our behalf. It was a conflict in roles that was highlighted when the Trust was set up, and has never successfully been resolved. As she repeated that she was going to fight off ‘Government interference’, many of us had the uncomfortable feeling that maybe a bit more Government interference might not be a bad thing if this is to be resolved.

Even as someone who owns a research company, I am always disturbed by the Trust’s standard fall back to ‘consulting widely amongst viewers’. Most viewers do not, and cannot, have a view about the complicated challenges faced by the BBC or the Government for that matter. That is why we elect representative government and why we have boards of public companies. Fairhead was full of the need to ‘consult’ widely, without ever detailing the questions that she was going to ask. There were times when I felt that we need her, the Trust, and the BBC Management Board to lead, not consult.

There are many people that believe that the BBC management can sometimes occupy a fantasy world of their own creation, and one that ignores many of the realities of the 21st century. In her speech, she completely failed to mention any of the distribution platforms the BBC now has to work through on its journey to the viewer. She didn’t mention the BBC’s relationship with the pay operators (Sky, Virgin, BT or TalkTalk), whose functionality is increasingly defining the new ways viewers engage with TV. Nor did she once mention the free operators (Freeview, YouView, Freesat) that the BBC has a shareholding in. She did however, flag up the BBC’s desire to increase personalisation around its own web properties, as though the UK television viewing community is demanding a unique one-to-one interaction with the BBC.  Consumer research shows that this is not the case and that this role is increasingly being delivered by the pay or freeTV platforms that actually deliver TV into their homes.

Most people in the free to air platforms have accepted that the focus of innovation needs to move away from the broadcasters, and up onto the platforms. The BBC need to move their focus of innovation away from iPlayer, and onto joint innovation with the other free-to-air broadcasters that support Freeview Connected and Freesat.  Quietly , the BBC is now spoken of as an impediment to innovation on the platforms, not a leader. The trust needs to recognise this as one of the core conflicts to be resolved.

The impression that stuck in my mind after the event was that we have a very slick operator in post now at the Trust. It is what we would expect from someone who has headed up Footsie companies, and run newspaper operations. Although I hadn’t expected the slick to ooze out between the cracks quite so quickly.

Her speech was selectively pre-released to various media organisations, and the manner in which this was done was beautifully cynical. The Guardian got the bit about ‘fighting Govt. interference’. The Telegraph got the bit about ‘tackling the new commercial landscape’. However, there was an element at the heart of the speech that left me speechless at its attempt to manipulate.

Her PR types obviously felt the need to humanise her, and to demonstrate emotional connection to the BBC. So she spoke about her recently deceased brother, and how they found BBC Blue Peter momentoes amongst his affects. She then described her recent battle with breast cancer, and how BBC broadcast output had helped her through the period. Had this been an informal sharing of anecdotes it would have hit the mark and been warm and personal. But it was stage managed, scripted and arch. It ended up striking a weirdly impersonal tone and wouldn’t have been accepted had a politician like David Cameron attempted it. She didn’t explain how BBC output had a superior palliative impact to commercial or pay TV. Or how the BBC was preferable to ITV within the standard oncological tool kit?

This would have been a minor footnote to the speech, had the Evening Standard not decide to send out a tweet, seconds after she had said it, highlighting their ‘new Trust Head says BBC helped in battle against breast cancer’ story they had launched on their web site. At a time when we all seek authenticity and the ‘genuine’, the BBC PR people had clearly crafted, then pre-leaked this as a human interest story for the popular press.

While impressed with the slickness of the operation many people will question what we had witnessed. But that is what you get when you pull in a big hitter from the newspaper industry.

So we are left, actually knowing nothing new or interesting about the Trust, or Fairhead’s intentions in this difficult year. After the ineptitude of Chris Patten / George Entwistle period, we hoped that they would put a proper grown up in charge. They clearly have, and now we can be left to wonder if we should have been careful about what we wished for.

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