Hit list 

14 December 2009 tbs.pm/1117

Delia Smith and Michael Palin of ‘limited appeal’, says leaked BBC list

Any list such as this leaked internal document from BBC Knowledge should be treated with great caution simply because it doesn’t contain facts and figures that are possible to at least partly verify by other means, as was the case with such things as previously-leaked presenter salaries and expense claims (valid or otherwise).

(Incidentally since the leaked list originates from the Sunday Times, I’m not linking directly to that site because of their current plans to charge for most if not all of that paper’s website content in the near future.)

Whilst on the subject of the Sunday Times, also bear in mind that it’s a News Corporation-owned newspaper, which implies the potential for an anti-BBC agenda given the current hostility towards anyone “distorting the(ir) market” – the BBC is very unlikely to charge for online news, potentially wrecking any online content charging plans.

We should also be wary of placing too much importance in both the existence of such a list (not surprising) and any implied “pecking order”. Plus the list as reproduced here is incomplete; for one thing, James May is apparently also included in the “Top tier” category along with his Top Gear colleagues (it would be frankly amazing if he wasn’t).

One problem with such a hypothetical list is that a particular presenter can frequently be only as good/popular as any current show that they have been given; a bad show or a format mismatch can quickly ruin the reputation of a presenter and in turn can potentially reduce their popularity dependent on various factors.

This situation has often been highlighted as the BBC struggled to find suitable formats for ‘popular’ presenters such as Graham Norton, of whom the BBC had invested considerable money in retaining prior to the recession; an era when broadcasters were merrily outbidding each other in order to hang on to so-called key presenters.

Unfortunately this previous overenthusiasm for retaining “top-tier” presenters has led to repeated accusations of the BBC wasting money from newspapers such as the Daily Mail (cf. Jonathan Ross’s so-called ‘salary’ which also included his production budget), regardless of the resultant value for money provided in the longer term.

(Never mind the rates also being charged by the commercial sector at the time of the contract signing, or the relative importance of the BBC retaining at least a small number of popular presenters.)

These oft-repeated criticisms are often moot because once the ink on the presenter’s contract has dried, that’s basically it until the contract comes up for renewal again, so you have to judge a decision based on circumstances at the time of the contract signing as opposed to months or years after the event given hindsight, valid or otherwise.

Bear all of this in mind when anyone attempts to connect such presenter salary issues with any implied “order of merit” such as this one, especially when the judging criterion employed on this occasion may be arbitrary and/or based on factors which journalists currently don’t have any access to, whether they are aware of them or not.

So the big question just has to be: does Alan Yentob deserve a place at the top of the list? Perhaps in terms of a rare combination of being a long-serving BBC executive – crucially pre-dating Mark Thompson – and an occasional presenter, the answer is possibly a qualified “Yes”.

And at least his name isn’t Mark Thompson.