Uncertain Vision – Management as a neutron bomb

The entry below is from Georgina Born’s Uncertain Vision, her ethnography of the BBC. The book examines the changes to the BBC brought about under John Birt and Greg Dyke. This excerpt talks about the structural changes to the Drama Group within the BBC brought about under John Birt’s leadership in 1996. Michael Wearing was then head of Drama Serials, previously he had been head of Drama at Pebble Mill.

Michael Wearing in 2009

Michael Wearing in 2009












Diary entry 1996 Georgina Born:

It is late 1996, five months after the restructuring and everything remains supremely confused in Drama Group. Almost all the critical issues impacting on how the drama departments will operate have still to be clarified of even, it has become plain, decided. For Drama, the restructuring has an apocalyptic quality. Everyone knows that Birt has removed all certainties; but nothing has come in to fill the vacuum. It is management as neutron bomb. There is paralysis and seething frustration. We are in a Drama Editorial Board and it seems that today a few things might become clearer. Charles Denton, former head of Drama Group, has left. The acting head reports that ‘the new head of Drama Group, when he or she is announced, will be bi-medial and will embrace a larger territory including radio drama and the World Service’. Michael Wearing and Mark Shivas, the two most experienced and respect editorial heads, have received letters from the chief executive of BBC Production informing them that there is still time to apply for the job of CE of Drama Group, but Michael muses, ‘What’s really going on in this letter is evasive. It looks as though we’re being required to reapply for our own jobs.’ The acting head reports that there will henceforth be two rather than one Business Affairs departments, in Broadcast and Production. The drama executives are sceptical: ‘Surely that risks two sets of business practice competing with one another, let alone unnecessary duplication of jobs? Michael comments that such duplication will ensure that production departments continue to carry huge overheads, like before – one of the problems the restructuring was meant to overcome: ‘What a bloody mess.’

The acting head continues that leading figures in Broadcast have made clear that when disputes arise between Broadcast and Production, Broadcast will be the moderators: the final power will reside with Broadcast. They move to discuss the interface between the drama production departments and Broadcast, which is only just emerging. Drama’s independent commissioning group will move into Broadcast; and the proposal is that the drama units from the national regions – Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – will also move into Broadcast, while London in-house and Birmingham will sit in Production. No one understands why. Several people express concern about the fragmentation of editorial purpose that will ensue; there seems to be a common desire to retain an integrated Drama Editorial Board.

Born, G. (2004) page 135-6, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC. London: Secker & Warburg


The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

David Shute: “Birt, who wasn’t even on a salary at the start of his damaging reign (tax dodge of course) brought in the dreaded McKinsey and the march of the suits began, that’s why I allowed myself to be head-hunted away from the Corporation I’d loved for a lot of wonderful years. Sadly I wasn’t alone but in my new life I was privileged to employ many of the talented PebbleMill professionals on a freelance basis.”

Tim Manning: “As a footnote to this, it’s worth remembering that – following an interim period where drama in the newly-created BBC Production was overseen by Ruth Caleb (from BBC Wales) and Alan Yentob – Colin Adams, who many will remember from his time as Head of Network Television at Pebble Mill, became Head of BBC Drama Production. Some months later, I also joined the London-based Senior Management Team of the department as Production Services Director.”