He had to go 

5 October 2007 tbs.pm/56

BBC News: BBC One boss quits over Queen row

Profile: Peter Fincham

Ever since Mark Thompson started sacking junior staff for various misdemeanours, including Richard Marson for changing the name of a cat (something that may later return to haunt Thompson) in an attempt to publicly restore confidence in the BBC, Peter Fincham’s position as BBC One controller after the ‘Crowngate’ affair was ultimately doomed.

Whatever your attitude is towards the monarchy as it currently stands, the Queen is legally head of state and the BBC operates under a royal charter, so the bottom line is that you mess with the Queen at your peril. And performing a ‘sexing up’ edit that makes Her Majesty look even less amused than she really was turned out to be highly embarrassing.

The fact that this edit turned up in a major press event – namely the launch of the BBC One Autumn season – made the situation ten times worse, since if that edit had just been broadcast when the programme eventually aired in full, there would still had been a major rumpus (with sackings) but it may not have affected Peter Fincham’s position as channel controller.

But is that sort of thing honestly still a sackable offence? It certainly doesn’t help that this came on the back of other ‘fakery’ scandals such as the Blue Peter competition winner fiasco and other broadcasters’ arguably much worse troubles, but once Thompson had started sacking producers for cat naming, you can’t back down when faced with something like this.

A few years ago, the BBC would have especially employed a top documentary producer for royal-related documentaries, but on this occasion it was an independent producer’s work which had been picked up and edited by independent producer RDF; a company well known for the likes of Wife Swap and Faking it.

Alarm bells should have been ringing within the BBC on this particular occasion as to the provenance of a documentary destined for a major slot in the BBC One autumn season – the programme ought to have been at least double-checked – but for some reason the wires to the alarm bell had been cut and senior executives somehow got themselves into a major mess.

The problem is that once you adopt that kind of sacking policy it becomes very difficult to objectively judge how serious a ‘misdemeanour’ is, especially when the popular press starts lumping premium rate phone scams and provoking racism for entertainment purposes (both very serious allegations) alongside cat naming and (heaven forbid) noddy shots. Which aren’t.

As for Peter Fincham, I had some minor misgivings at the time in relation to his appointment as BBC One controller, and these misgivings eventually turned out to have been vindicated. If you look at his past history before his controllership appointment, you will see that most of his experience had been entertainment-related as opposed to factual programming.

Don’t get me wrong – Peter Fincham had a very impressive CV prior to his BBC One appointment, but when someone’s past experience of serious programming predominantly involves the art of corporate video-making, that sort of thing doesn’t consistently require making tough real-time editorial decisions on the spot whilst under great pressure.

Which is definitely one of the attributes required for the running of BBC One, since it’s so much more than just an entertainment channel. It’s also the most important BBC television channel so its factual output requires strong editorial direction together with the ability to say “No” even when confronted with a problem that threatens a major deadline.

And that ultimately turned out to be his undoing in that he made the wrong decision on the spur of the moment when confronted with a potentially explosive situation. He either misjudged the seriousness of the mistake or alternatively bottled out when it became apparent that the Autumn season press launch was imminent, with no time to make a correction.

But the woes of Peter Fincham ultimately involve so much more than his resignation along with his head of press Jane Fletcher plus RDF’s creative director Stephen Hopkins Lambert; what will later happen to other people including Jana Bennett (who has been also implicated to some extent) and even the ultimate fate of Mark Thompson himself.

This whole incident encompasses the basic culture of the BBC and how it has been influenced by market forces and other broadcasters, including the involvement of independent production companies to a greater extent than ever before. There’s also the stress of production deadlines and financial constraints impacting on the quality of programming in general.

And ironically it is news and current affairs that currently still seems to be the principal focus for further cutbacks planned by Mark Thompson, so what will happen as a consequence is anyone’s guess. There’s nothing worse than an overstretched and understaffed department for making mistakes when under pressure.

Whether Mark Thompson’s “religious zeal” in cleaning up the BBC actually results a more trustworthy and honest organisation remains to be seen, but when the penalty for a mistake made under pressure is being sacked, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and trust when the incentive becomes stronger to conceal mistakes as opposed to admit to them.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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David Hastings Contact More by me