The BBC and the digital walking dead

SUMMARY:

The BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI) may have been officially killed off, but it’s proving to be the digital transformation project that won’t lie down dead.

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Margaret Hodge MP

The BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI) may have been officially killed off, but it’s proving to be the digital transformation project that won’t lie down dead.

As noted previously, the DMI cost the BBC – and therefore the UK television licence fee payer – was set up in a blaze of grand ambition to digitise the national broadcaster’s decades strong archive of video content.

But four years and £100 million later, the DMI was finally written off by incoming BBC Director General Lord Tony Hall.

By this time, DMI was referred to internally by BBC staff as Don’t Mention It.

The trouble is, a number of important people are now wondering if it was mentioned to the upper echelons of the BBC before now and why action was not taken sooner.

Pungent

The most pungent criticism has come from Parliament where the hugely influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) – which critiques and reports back on major public sector programmes in the UK – reckons that members of parliament (MPs) “may have been misled” by the comments about the DMI made by the former director general Mark Thompson back in 2011.

Thompson told MPs two years ago that DMI was “out in the business”, that there were “many programmes being made with DMI” and that it had contributed to on-air broadcasts.

That’s not the world view now. At a hearing held at BBC North’s MediaCityUK headquarters in Salford, BBC trustee Anthony Fry admitted DMI had been a “complete catastrophe” and “probably the most serious, embarrassing thing I have ever seen.”

An investigation into the DMI fiasco has begun under the auspices of PricewaterhouseCooper, but that’s not due to report until at least September. There’s also an inquiry by UK government auditors the National Audit Office underway.

Beady eye 

But meanwhile Margaret Hodge, Chair of the PAC, has the bit between her teeth – and that’s generally bad news for those on the receiving end of her beady gaze.

What’s likely to be embarrassing for the BBC is a letter sent to the governing BBC Trust in May last year by Bill Garrett, former head of technology for BBC Vision, who described Thompson’s evidence to parliament as “exceedingly misleading”.

Hodge said this week :

“The thing that really shook me is we were told there were bits of this system that were working, you were using and running programmes with them, and that wasn’t true. That just wasn’t true.

“Mr Thompson told us that things were already being used because of this great agile project; then Mr Garrett told us that was not true. Therefore the evidence given to us was not correct at that time and had you given us the correct evidence we might have come to a very different view to the one we came to when we looked at this.”

Garrett says he wrote to BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten in 2012 telling him of his concerns about DMI, pointing out that he had raised the issue with senior management in 2010.

After the DMI was finally culled last month, Garrett wrote again to Patten to ask why the BBC Trust had

“appeared to miss or even gloss over my serious concerns”.

Warning heeded

Lord Patten insists that Garrett’s warning was heeded and had contributed to the BBC Trust asking for “further information from the BBC Executive in the summer of 2012”.

A BBC Trust spokeswoman told The Guardian newspaper:

“The concerns raised in this May 2012 letter, along with other sources of information, prompted the trust to seek further information from the BBC Executive about the DMI project in summer 2012. There followed an initial review of the project, which led to spending in the majority of areas being suspended by autumn 2012, followed by the decision recently announced to bring the project permanently to a close.”

Fry’s testimony to the PAC this week seems to back this up:

“I attended my first finance [and compliance] committee (FCC) meeting in January 2009, and since then I do not think there has been a single meeting of the finance committee where the subject of DMI in its various guises has not been discussed.”

But if concerns were being discussed in early 2009, then it took a long time – and a lot of UK taxpayers money – to get to grips with the matter.

Fry made an interesting comment when he said he believed there was a feeling in BBC management in 2011 that it could “walk on water” after the success of the iPlayer – the online, on demand TV and radio replay service with which the BBC has had enormous success in the UK and increasingly overseas.

If true, it’s a bad case of very expensive digital arrogance.

What next – and who?

Mark Thompson is set to be hauled in front of the PAC to answer more questions about what happened on his watch and it seems unlikely that Lord Patten will manage to avoid having to face down Hodge and her colleagues again.

Quite who else will be dragged into the mess remains to be seen. Ashley Highfield was chief technology officer when the project was commissioned, but went on to work at Microsoft and later became CEO of Johnston Press.

Prior to Linwood, the DMI project was led by Erik Huggers, the ex-director of BBC future, media and technology. Caroline Thomson, the corporation’s former chief operating officer, was his line manger.

In the meantime, BBC chief technology offer John Linwood has been suspended on full pay – and Hodge suspects he’s been lined up as the fall guy:

“Never let it be said that I’m a conspiracy theorist: This is more than one individual to get to that stage where there are assertions at committee – we gave you a green light on information.

I know you’ve suspended one individual – but my conspiracy theory would be that there is more than one involved.”

Verdict

It’s an unholy digital mess – and one that’s likely to provide some valuable lessons for others to avoid as the wreckage is picked over.