Saturday, April 01, 2006

Were the BBC held accountable in Belfast?

How accountable is your employer to customers? Given the cost of the TV licence fee, and the fact that the BBC spend it on our behalf, it seems fair that the BBC should come face-to-face with some of us every now and again.

And so it was that the Quiz the Governors roadshow came to Belfast on Wednesday evening. Michael Grade (BBC Chairman), Fabian Monds (National Governor for NI), together with three colleagues: Ruth Deech, Dermot Gleeson and Ranjit Sondhi.

Michael Grade (Chairman)Fabian Monds (NI Nation Governor) Ruth Deech Dermot Gleeson  Ranjit Sondhi

In hindsight, maybe it should have been renamed the Quiz the Managers event.

The long queue outside Blackstaff Studio slowly entered the building, were ticked off on the invitee list, and allowed into the holding pen complete with its supplies of shortbread and orange juice (the hard stuff was kept locked up for later).

The event was being webcast live, so it took place in the studio, with a presenter, cameras, and a convivial floor manager. Unfortunately they started late. Though I can’t see anyone watching online being any more patient than a normal TV viewer.

“We apologise that Eastenders will be delayed for half an hour. Please sit tight and wait for us.”

So time was already tight. Then they made us sit through three welcomes (presenter, chairman, local governor), and a twice-as-long-as-it-should-have-been voxpop video. Since the people of Northern Ireland had applied to sit in the audience and wait to be chosen to ask questions, did we really need to waste time watching ourselves talking on the screen? Fifteen minutes in, the first question was taken from a member of the public.

Overall it was an interesting, yet disappointing evening. Many of the questions were redirected from the governors to the BBC executives sitting in the front row. Mark Thompson, Mark Byford, Caroline Thomson, Anna Carragher probably spent more time talking from the ill-lit front row than the governors on stage.

There were questions about the licence fee “tax” and the low level of Irish language programming (compared to minority language coverage in Scotland and Wales). Why are there so many repeats? (Answer: £15-30k an hour for a repeat vs £300k for one hour of new drama.) And the panel of governors had their very own Jerry Springer moment - though they mentioned it first.

Useful analysis about Northern Ireland having to wait for digital switchover until 2012. If we’re lucky it’ll be complete in time for the London Olympics, but we’ll certainly not have High Definition. NI was the first UK region to have 100% broadband coverage; and will be amongst the last couple of regions to have digital TV rollout and HD.

Stephen Nolan sat uncharacteristically quiet while a serial complainer took another pop at him and his show about an unsatisfactory interview (involving the complainant and the NI Law Society). Pity the man walked out immediately afterwards and then stood in the rain with his placard while the rest of us enjoyed some food. If he'd stayed inside, he might have got to talk to someone who could have helped. (The photo is appalling. Note the other posters he'd pinned to the hoarding behind the traffic.)

A member of the local arts community asked why there were so few opportunities for local actors to work with the BBC. Turns out that most television drama commissioned by BBC NI is actually shot and produced in the UK mainland. At the moment, there aren’t any returning dramas (Ballykisangel stopped a long time ago). Just for Laughs was given as an example of locally made network-wide content … though it was originally commissioned out of London, and is made by Wild Rover - a Belfast-based independent TV production company. The expanding local Radio Drama department was the only encouragement that could be offered up.

In all, the audience didn’t get to ask many questions, certainly a lot fewer than the transcripts of previous regional events. Walking out of the studio, the Head of BBC Accountability was overheard saying that it had been the best of these events so far. What? Mark Thompson (the Director General) was held a lot more accountable than the governors and Michael Grade.

And technically it had its moments too: it started late, the interpreter wasn't totally visible to anyone relying on watching the right hand screen in the studio, the subtitling link was lost half way through the evening and the "testcard" was left up for 10 minutes before anyone thought to hide it. (Looks like UTV - half a mile up the road - were doing the subtitling. Either that or someone was lazy when labelling the video feed.) Roving mics were also ripped off questioners to give the front row execs a chance to speak, and sometimes they dimmed the lights to leave speakers in the dark instead of brightening them. It certainly was live.

To be fair, the participants - chairman, governors, local broadcasting council members, and other BBC employees - did hang around afterwards to talk and further discuss issues with individuals. And we all enjoyed eating a proportion of our licence fee - it was a good spread. So a big thank you to the BBC for coming to Belfast to meet the people. And an encouragement to make it even better next time.

If the event is repeated in Belfast in 1 to 2 years time, someone will have tippexed out the set so that it will say Quiz the Trustees ... yet no one got to ask a question or discuss what changes the recent government white paper would bring. Would the remit and strength of the new Audience Councils differ from the current Broadcasting Council? Will there be any continuity between structures? Will youth be represented on the accountability bodies? Not a peep about the changes in accountability.

If they ever get around to publishing the transcript, you'll be able to read it - and watch the recorded webcast - on the BBC Governors site. Don't hold your breath - the text of February event in Cardiff is still not online!

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UPDATE - and I forgot to mention that Mark Thompson (the DG) got stuck in the Broadcasting House lift in Belfast on Wednesday! Apparently not deliberate sabotage. The lift plays Radio Ulster inside - I pity him if he was forced to listen to too much George Jones.

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