Bannister runs into BBC trouble

Matthew Bannister is in an invidious position as he unveils his proposals for the future of the BBC marketing and communications empire he has headed since April.

Empire it is too, albeit one embarking on a spot of decolonisation. One unintended result of the three-month gestation period of these ‘reforms’ has been the disclosure of some interesting statistics. There are, for example, some 450 people under Bannister’s sway and his total budget, including headcount, seems to be about &£75m a year. So no mean size, even by commercial standards.

Evidently, with an organisation of this complexity, there is always room for improvements and Bannister, as the new broom brought in by the new director-general Greg Dyke with a broad-brush brief to root out Birtian bureaucratic inefficiencies, is in a favourable position to implement them.

He started from a position of strength. Corporate communications, for long a law unto itself, was integrated into marketing and communications, while Bannister himself was allowed to sit at the top table (one of Dyke’s 18 petals) – the first time a BBC marketer had achieved such status.

But from there on in, the brief was always going to be sticky. Bannister was forcibly engaged not only in ‘streamlining’ his department but in delivering substantial cuts to its budget. This was the dark underside of Dyke’s visionary (and laudable) plan to reinvest &£1bn of BBC income over 7 years in improved product – the fruits of which can already be seen in his FA Cup broadcasting coup.

What Bannister appears to have come up with is a cunning plan to put ‘discretionary’ spending (for example advertising and promotion) on hold, in the hope that this will win enough Dyke brownie points to enable him to increase spend again next year. But conjuring tricks are not enough and, on present calculations, it looks as if between 65 and 80 people will be sacrificed to reach his target of between &£10m and &£18m of savings.

In the longer run, however, attention may be focused less on what Bannister was forced into by circumstances and more on his constructive proposals for change. These at very least are intriguing. The aim, apparently, has been to divide the department (directorate in BBC speak) into four attitudinal strands, representing the moods of viewers – youth, mainstream, heartland and nations. This seems an intelligent nod in the direction of genre viewing, signalled in a recent speech by the new director of television, Mark Thompson.

Alas, things are not as simple as this streamlined model might suggest. Bannister appears to have got himself immersed in a power struggle with the service heads, such as Thompson himself and Jenny Abramsky, director of Radio, over who calls the shots in marketing. The resulting fudge and duplication of responsibilities has been described by at least one insider as “a complete mess,” which will do little to raise already dented staff morale.

It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate Bannister’s abilities as a politician.

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