The BBC's digital drama continues with accusations from ex-staff

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan January 29, 2014
Summary:
The questions get tougher next week as senior BBC officials will be summoned before a UK government committee and asked to explain what the National Audit Office this week identified as an appalling lack of governance over a massive digital programme.

Earlier in the week we took a look at the BBC’s doomed Digital Media Initiative, an ambitious scheme to digitise archival video across the broadcasting corporation which ended up with zero return on £125.9 million of taxpayers money.

We asked flippantly how many episodes of Doctor Who or EastEnders you'd get for £129.9 million?

Next week the questions get tougher as senior BBC officials will be summoned before a UK government committee and asked to explain what the National Audit Office this week identified as an appalling lack of governance at the most senior level of the organisation.

In preparation for the hearing before the feared Public Accounts Committee(PAC), written evidence has been submitted that suggests that the BBC top brass could in for a serious drubbing next week.

Two items of written evidence have been submitted. One is from Bill Garrett, former Head of Technology, BBC Vision Productions. The other is from John Linwood, former Chief Technology Officer, BBC, the only person to be sacked as a result of the DMI’s collapse and a man that many suspect has been hung out to dry to take the blame on behalf of others within the BBC.

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Mick Carter's not impressed

Garrett, a one time investigate journalist who specialised in commercial misconduct and technology transformation, accuses the BBC of having misled the NAO in its investigation, an incredibly serious charge to level and one that will inevitably be tested to breaking point next week.

At the heart of Garrett’s statement is his insistence that he had raised warning flags about the DMI’s progress on several occasions, but that senior management, including the Chairman of the BBC Lord Patten, had failed to take appropriate action:

Too many staff members and contractors jobs depended on DMI continuing, many of them recognised the project had little chance of success however speaking up would impact their careers and livelihood. Many senior figures had reputations invested in DMI. The resulting behaviours ensured that concerns external to DMI were either dismissed or shut down and business cases and other approvals were simply waived through without proper scrutiny.

This culture ensured the project continued receiving funds, this was not one person but a very large group of people. There were a number of individuals senior in the technology division who held the responsibility to safe guard public funds in this area but did not act despite being aware of this situation. In some cases I believe certain individuals acted wilfully to subvert governance processes and falsify value propositions so as to deceive the various governance panels.

As early as 2008, he says:

the credibility of the project was very low and it became increasingly challenging to explain its failings to senior production figures who relied on my technical understanding. By early 2009 I was aware that problems with the project were causing tensions between the corporation and its technology partner Siemens.

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Someone's told Jonny how much money's been wasted!

A decision was taken by the BBC management to bring the project in-house and dispense with Siemens, a move that Garrett says he warned against:

In the autumn of 2009 in a conversation with a senior technology manager who reported to John Linwood, I describe the decision to tear up the contract with Siemens as a "reckless act" adding "They (DMI team) will probably never be able to deliver the project now". I qualify my comments indicating that a key technical challenge and therefore risk for DMI was the capability of the BBC's computer network to support the system.

I indicated that as Siemens operated and managed this network for the BBC, Siemens had effectively underwritten this risk by also being the contractor who had committed to deliver DMI. By tearing up the contract and bringing the project "in-House" the BBC took on this risk. The individual indicated that he understood this "dynamic".

But Garrett claims that the BBC management’s mindset became locked down into defensive mode when questions were raised about the DMI program. For example, in a 2010 email from “a senior figure in BBC management”, Garret was warned about his tone when criticising the DMI work:

He writes "These are our colleagues, not a third party we are testing for credibility." I am shocked by his statement, it was crucial to determine the credibility of DMI ahead of its business case application for further funding. I cannot speak for the mindedness of this individual when he wrote this particular email however the net effect of his communication was to inhibit the freedom of concerns being raised by those it was directed at. A production colleague commented to me “I think we’re being told to shut up”.

This situation gets worse in other meetings as executive heads go deeper and deeper into the sand:

In a routine meeting with a senior Vision Productions colleague and a senior technology manager who reported to John Linwood. I raise my concerns about the benefits case for DMI directly with the technology manager, specifically the subject of the cost avoidance figures. He immediately becomes extremely agitated, he doesn't attempt to address the concerns but starts raising concerns he has about another unrelated matter discussed earlier in our meeting. I try to refer back to the issue but he ignores the point again drawing our focus to an irrelevant matter.

Garrett resigned from the BBC in mid-2010 but says he kept in touch with colleagues who kept him up to speed.

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John Linwood

Meanwhile Linwood confirms in his written evidence that he is taking legal action against the BBC and that this is ongoing. He makes similar accusations to Garrett when he says:

The BBC has allowed inaccurate statements to be made to the PAC to the effect that the “kit doesn’t work” and is “worth nothing”.

Linwood paints a picture of various factions within the BBC, each operating with their own agenda, and as a result the business case behind the DMI became confused and changed direction:

There were different requirements in different departments and they said it didn’t make sense any more to have a single, standardised production process across the BBC. Their vision, upon which the whole project had been predicated, had changed.

By April of last year, the mood within the BBC senior management had darkened and the following month the Executive Board approved a recommendation that

the original vision of DMI for a single integrated digital production toolset is no longer valid.

The DMI was shut down and the costs written off.

Next week Linwood will join former BBC finance head Zarin Patel. former chief operating officer Caroline Thomson, BBC trustee Anthony Fry, and director of operations Dominic Coles to face a grilling by MPs on the PAC.

But most attention is likely to focus on former BBC director-general Mark Thompson, now the New York Times chief executive.

Thompson gave evidence to parliament about DMI in 2011 when he incorrectly claimed the scheme was already up and running, evidence which he later said had been given "honestly and in good faith" based on information from BBC executives.

There are a lot of questions to be answered.

Verdict

There will be blood on the carpet!