"Show must go on" culture at the BBC more to blame for errors than a calculating culture of deceit

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 19 July 2007

In all my time working at the BBC there was never anything as high-pressured, stressful, or as worrying as having an application with a 'TX critical' deadline - meaning that it had to go live and work at the appointed moment that it was mentioned in the broadcast stream.

Software updates could be put back, new content publishing could be delayed, whole website launches could be shelved, as long as it wasn't going to be mentioned on TV or Radio.

The majority of the cases of audience deceit emerging from the BBC this week seem to be coming from the panic of having something technically not go alright on the night. TV is show-business, and some people at the BBC are a lot more bothered about doing the 'show' rather than the 'business'.

For me, it seems clear that in most of these instances 'The show must go on' ethic has been allowed to triumph over the less appealing alternative 'Show must go on, but with a different running order, and an on-air message saying there has been a technical hitch' ethic.

In retrospect, the headlines that live show producers would have been dreading - "BBC in Children In Need phone competition fiasco" - would have been a lot less troublesome for the Corporation than the current headlines - "BBC in Children In Need deceit".

I can't honestly say I'll be surprised, if the BBC Trust decides to look further back than January 2005, to see more examples of these creeping out of the woodwork. Nor would I expect any of the other major broadcasters in the UK not to have any skeletons in this particular closet.

The Liz Kershaw show, however, seems like a whole magnitude worse than a bad on-the-spot decision by a panicked production team who are unwilling to admit to a problem on air.

This looks, from the reports emerging, to have been a deliberate and calculated attempt to make the audience try and take part in a phone-in competition that was completely phoney. This is the case, that looks to me, to be most deserving of disciplinary action - everybody from the show's runner to the head of the network ought to have known that this was wrong. And stupid.

Broadcasters instinctively hate admitting mistakes and problems to the public. The magic lantern isn't quite so magic if you keep getting to see that bits of it are being held together by sticky-backed plastic, string, glue and the goodwill of the staff.

In May 2004, I was involved in one incident of online voting where the BBC had to pull a competition that was already running, and to re-do it using a different method.

The results of the Five Live Veteran's Vote as displayed on the bbc.co.uk website

Radio Five Live's "Veteran's Vote" for old footballer of the year was totally hijacked by Oldham fans, who were distributing a script which was automatically submitting multiple votes for their player.

In the end, after discussion with Five Live about how we could salvage the vote, the production team made the correct decision to scrap the online votes, and re-run the award from scratch with an SMS vote during the show. That way they could better guarantee one person one vote.

Shelagh Fogarty was forced to say on air that:

"Over the weekend it became clear that the vote on the website was being attacked, and the sheer volume of fictitious votes meant it had to be taken down to protect the rest of the BBC website."

whilst Nicky Campbell called it:

"some internetery-jiggery-pokery"

The production team were furious that the new media department hadn't been able to support their vote properly, whilst I was annoyed that the network had used an unsuitable means of canvassing opinion for that kind of partisan vote. We all learned from the experience, and subsequently worked much more collaboratively on high profile football related votes.

In that case, in a tight spot, with a running order that included announcing the winner of a poll they knew to be compromised, the producers made the right decision.

It seems that not every production team at the BBC, when faced with similar problems, has been.

The damage that has been done to the BBC's reputation as a consequence is, without a doubt, considerable.

1 Comment

You're spot on with the Liz Kershaw conspiracy - I do feel that's in a different league to the ones where a production team has made a spur of the moment decision.

However, the already-audited Sports Relief competition, where the team were warned and didn't do anything about it is in a similar league, and certainly needs some sort of action.

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