Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Writers' Guild response to BBC announcement

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain has issued its response to today’s announcement by Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC.

Statement by Bernie Corbett

General Secretary, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain

In eight plain words – “The BBC should not attempt to do everything” – Mark Thompson has overturned a philosophy that has been central to the BBC since it was founded 87 years ago.

If it sticks, the new policy that the BBC can no longer provide something for everybody but must instead concentrate on high quality and areas where others can’t or won’t provide, will have profound implications.

We are suspicious of a policy change which is the result of pressure from commercial broadcasters (particularly the Murdoch empire). We take no pleasure in the abolition of Radio 6 or the Asian network (both of which are the very kind of high-quality services that no other broadcaster provides). We are particularly worried by proposals - like dropping the Asian network - which throw the BBC's commitment to diversity into reverse. And of course we support our fellow entertainment unions in their battle against job cuts.

If the changes do genuinely release £600 million to go into more and better programmes, we have some immediate suggestions as to how some of that might be best spent.

Original drama: For several years everyone has been asking why Britain can’t produce brilliant series like The Sopranos, The Wire, etc. Here is a chance for the BBC to create its own in-house HBO.

New writers: Fresh talent and new ideas don’t have to be developed to death – here is an opportunity to take some risks. Five out of every six TV drama scripts commissioned and paid for by the BBC never get made – now that ratio can be radically improved.

Make me laugh: We long for brilliant new sitcoms. Use some of this money to give them room to grow. Many of the true greats were into their second or third series before they achieved classic status.

Something for the kids:
Build on the success of CBBC and CBeebies by reinventing real, meaty drama and comedy for kids – there is more to children’s TV than running-around-shouting-and-playing shows and endlessly repeated animations – brilliant though they are.

Rescue radio: A tiny fragment of the money would not only restore but reverse the shameful cuts in BBC Radio drama that in recent years have seen the abandonment of World Service drama, the crazy cancellation of terrific soaps like Westway and Silver Street, the imminent demise of the Friday Play and the dumbing-down of the Woman’s Hour drama slot into little more than a reading with interludes of dialogue.

Comedy: While we’re at it, let us have the reintroduction of topical sketch shows like Week Ending or the News Huddlines – these shows have enabled generations of brilliant writers to get started and write their way out of their bedsits and into the ratings.

Britain’s broadcasting heritage: At long last here is a realistic source for the huge sums required to digitise the BBC archive and put it online, where everyone can access every TV or radio show that was ever made in the UK (or at least, those that still survive). And please will the BBC not give our heritage away for nothing, but charge a reasonable pay-per-view or subscription price. Doing so will avoid the iPlayer mistake of setting up impossible competition for other, commercial providers, and it will bring in revenue to fund even more programme making and to ensure fair payment for the writers and other creators who made those shows. Never forget, the BBC did not buy or pay for these rights at the time the programmes were made and it cannot rewrite history now.

Update: More about the Strategy Review from the BBC.


  1. Anonymous10:57 pm

    Thank you Bernie Corbett, at last, someone taking time to mention 'new' writers. As someone struggling against BBC BS bureacracy and discrimination, it's time for the tide to turn, scrap writersroom/academy, kick out useless execs and have Open Door subs on every programme, as a publicly funded broadcaster it is a duty the BBC has been shirking for too long.


    I agree with Bernie Corbett's excellent response and applaud the BBC's changes; though I've been asked how cancelling Radio 6, the Asian Network and a few web pages can free up £600 million? They must use a lot of leccy.

    But I notice the BBC doesn't mention the one area which needs rationalising the most: the countless layers of needless bureaucrats who, as Bernie notes, develop projects to death.

    The BBC have too many unnecessary jobsworths who must be seen to be busy. As writers know, this usually rears its head in interference in their scripts; often stifling creativity at birth. How about a new battlecry for our new quality-seeking BBC: "Let writers write!"

  3. Anonymous10:17 am

    << Open Door subs on every programme, as a publicly funded broadcaster it is a duty the BBC has been shirking for too long.>>

    I never understand the argument that because the BBC is taxpayer funded, they therefore have an additional obligation to involve as many taxpayers as possible in the writing. As a viewer I want to see programmes written by great writers, not writers who were given a turn because the BBC was obliged to. Surely this same logic would lead to the NHS letting anyone who wants to have a bash at open-heart surgery.

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  5. Anonymous7:45 pm

    With all due respect to Gail Renard -

    What the BBC Review actually says about BBC Online is that the number of sections on its site will be HALVED by 2012. And that the BBC will spend 25% less on BBC online by 2013, "with a corresponding reduction in staffing levels." (p.9)

    That's not cancelling 'a few web pages'. I think a bit of respect for the job losses involved in those cuts wouldn't go amiss.

    And with all due respect to Bernie -

    I wish this statement overall made more pointed and relevant criticism.

    For example, the Review recommends an investment of £10m a year in Children's Programming from 2013, and is extending the cut-off of CBBC from 7pm to 9pm. Why not ask how much of that £10m will go Drama and Comedy? or what proportion of these increased hours will be original programming versus repeats?

    And for the key area of Original Drama, I'm not sure how helpful the call for an 'in-house HBO' is, given that HBO is a USA subscription channel, and as such is a commercial operation it would be impossible to replicate in the UK, with a much smaller population.

    If the reference to HBO means nothing more than 'why can't we make good original drama' - well, among other things, the Review specifically mentions that it wants to "re-establish BBC Two’s reputation in drama through an increase in the volume and range of strongly authored programmes which reflect the state of the nation and of the world through contemporary and historical subject matter (e.g., House of Saddam, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers). This will mean single films as well as new series and serials, and there will be more opportunities for writers to experiment with new forms, concepts and topics."

    That all sounds quite good to me. But aren't there important questions here to be asked about what that actually means in terms of output (hours and investment per year)?

    And the Review also recommends "reducing spending on imported programmes and films by 20%". Presumably a lot of these imports are Drama. So will there be a corresponding increase on domestic drama spend of 20%?

    These are just a few specific things that are surely relevant to the future of BBC Drama and Comedy, and to members of the WG. I think this statement is too general, and in places, I'm afraid some of the suggestions make it look as though no one's actually read the report properly. This is such an important Review, and it's vital that criticism is well informed and relevant.

    The Review can be found here - http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/review_report_research/strategic_review/strategic_review.pdf

    And the public consultation closes on May 25th - https://consultations.external.bbc.co.uk/departments/bbc/bbc-strategy-review/consultation/consult_view

  6. Anonymous12:27 pm

    Well here is a nice impassioned letter and for once the G.S. seems to be reflecting the sentiments of writers and not their exploiting industry. I must say I agree but it does provoke some thoughts.

    After ten years of negotiating deals with the BBC it makes you wonder what has been achieved for writers. The BBC, I suspect, never give any more than they have already made up their minds to give - not a lot. And this was during the so-called "Good Times".

    In the U.S. at least they have a Union Closed Shop; that's quite something for a Capitalist country. Yet here various governments think it's a problem (idealogical most likely). We do of course have the unofficial "Closed Shop" of Literary Agents who usually have "no room" on their books for "new blood", and act as good filters for the commissioners or producers.

    So what has the G.S. or the WGGB done to get together with the TUC to lobby Government on Trade Union Law and the lack of Closed Shop?

    P.S. there are even Guild Members who are dead against the idea of a Closed Shop but without this the economics of the Free Market will always place writers at a disadvantage.

  7. Anonymous4:29 pm

    Mark Thompson wants to divert money to quality programming?

    Well then close BBC3 (only good thing it's done is Being Human) & Radio 1 (absolutely nothing good about it at all).

    Do not close 6 Music!

    Join the facebook page to protest


  8. "...In the U.S. at least they have a Union Closed Shop...'

    I was going to point out that the blog for overthrowing capitalism is thataway =====> but this is a point that comes up a lot.

    Thanks to the 1984 and 1989 trade union acts, It is all but impossible within the constraints of UK trade union law to operate or enforce a closed shop. Trade union law in the USA is very, very different to trade union law in the UK, and is far less restrictive: http://www.emplaw.co.uk/content/index?startpage=data/093002.htm.

    A closed shop simply isn't an option in Britain, and it's hard to find a senior politician on in any party who would support it. If you feel strongly that trade union law should be reformed - and you'd have my vote there - then lobby your parliamentary candidates in the run-up to this year's election.

    In the meantime, the Guild does deliver real results for its members - from minimum terms agreements to good practice guides for film, television and videogames writers - and feedback from our members confirms that these guides are being used, both by writers and by producers. Not to mention the BBC forum for tackling specific disputes and areas for negotiation, an excellent pension scheme and a free arbitration service for resolving disputes over credit allocation. The arbitration service is a brilliant example of Guild writers putting something back into the writing community for no reward - the screenwriters who read multiple drafts of a script, and weigh up the relative merits of competing claims for credit are the unpaid, uncredited heroes and heroines of WGGB.

  9. Anonymous9:15 pm

    "A closed shop simply isn't an option in Britain" - Edel Brosnan.

    You've pointed out the restrictions, Ms Brosnan, but are laws cast in stone? Don't we live in a democracy and aren't unions part of it? So again: what is the WGGB doing along with the TUC to effect a change for writers and workers without which Capitalism couldn't even survive?

  10. Dear Anon, the Guild is a member-led organisation. The Chair, EC, committee Chairs and committee members are all writers, donating hundreds of hours of their time to do all of the things Edel outlines above, and more. If you want to start a movement calling for a closed shop... and many of us would join you... why not start it? The question isn't "what is the WGGB doing along with the TUC to effect a change for writers," but what are you?

  11. Anonymous9:15 pm

    Ms Renard, I have no doubt that the Craft Committees and others work very hard but then so does a hamster running for all its life within a wheel.

    So what is the WGGB for if you, the executive of a Union, are suggesting I, as an individual having no clout, start this campaign. I would have thought it so fundamental that the Unions would have started a campaign long before now - and some probably have - but what has the Guild done in respect of "the closed shop" or the laws which act as a straight-jacket on the free trade union movement?

  12. Anon, we're all individuals with "no clout" but we still stand up to be counted. It's individuals together that make a Guild. Meanwhile we've been busy securing writers' rights and incomes in the digital present and future; often getting better terms than the WGA, which IS a closed shop. And (on a good day) I'm a full time writer. We all take our turns to contribute so please stop passing the buck. As the great President Barlett said, sometimes democracy is just showing up.

  13. Anonymous5:01 pm

    "...busy securing writers' rights..." - Ms Renard

    Doesn't this tie in with what I've been saying about legislation? Don't you think anti trade union laws actually stymie a writer's rights? Hence the need to keep up the pressure on changing or repealing bad laws which limit a worker's or writer's "rights".

    Is it therefore unreasonable that I ask (repeatedly): what is the WGGB doing along with the TUC (to which it is affiliated) to put pressure on the Government to change or repeal these laws?

  14. Anonymous, here's what you need to do, assuming you're a fulltime Guild member. Propose a motion for this year's Guild AGM. Speak to the motion at the AGM and then if the motion is carried, a campaign to reverse the ban on a closed shop will then become Guild policy.

    The next step would be finding the funds to organise and run the campaign - every letter that goes out has to be written, proofed, printed and paid for, and where possible, we try to lobby with the other entertainment unions, namely Equity and the Musicians' Union. You'd need to solicit their support and then arrnage an equitable split of the campaign expenses. Stage three is taking the campaign to the TUC to try to win their support and then stage four would involve orgnisising and paying for meetings and a press campaign and trying to influence opinion in the ruling party of the day.

    If it's something you feel passionately about, then go for it. But in the meantime, I'd appreciate if we could keep the tone of converation a little more comradely and civil on here.

  15. Anonymous1:26 am

    "Anonymous, here's what you need to do, assuming you're a fulltime Guild member..."

    Shame the Guild hasn't already done it then!

    I'm sorry if you think the tone and conversation isn't civil enough for you, Ms Brosnan, but all I wanted was a straight answer which I didn't get. I find that comment of yours totally unreasonable as I have been civil although assertive. I just wanted an answer but it caused you and Ms Renard embarrassment because the Guild has not taken the serious road to campaigning for the return of our rights in the workplace although it is happy to campaign for our friends across the pond. A nice PR stunt as the WGGB cannot control all the non union writers that might have taken up blacked work at the time. But the photo looked on the website. It might have meant more if there had been a closed shop.

    Of course, I do appreciate the counter argument that one might be stuck in a union that one is dissatisfied with.

  16. Anonymous, I've asked the Guild office to give an update on the Guild / TUC policy on closed shops and restrictive practices.

    Personally I would welcome root-and-branch reform of trade union law, but Guild policy is not defined by what I would like to see, and that's as it should be. It's defined by our members.

    If you want to spearhead a change to existing Guild policy then propose a motion at the AGM and write to the Guild's Executive Council asking them to review the existing policy with a view to changing it. You could also consider standing for election for a seat on the executive council - there are vacant EC seats at the moment to the best of my knowledege. Seriously, if you want to make a difference, then take the plunge and get involved.


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