W1A falls short of the real absurdity of life at the BBC

Has Danny Cohen stolen Bonneville’s comedic limelight? BBC/Jack Barnes

Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” But W1A, the BBC’s new let’s-all-laugh-at-ourselves observational comedy, has shown art can be quickly left behind, following some spectacular real-life corporation theatrics.

The star of the show has not been Hugh Bonneville, as the bewildered incoming “Head of Values” Ian Fletcher, but the BBC’s real director of television (or director of vision as he might have been called until recently). You could say the last month hasn’t been kind to the suddenly accident-prone Danny Cohen.

First, in one of those tin-eared speeches that only an hermetically insulated executive could deliver, he said he was worth his salary because he – he actually said “we”, presumably meaning those brave few in Broadcasting House on penurious mid-six-figure salaries – would “be paid roughly double” in commercial organisations. The applause he may have heard in his head following that remark was not likely to echo the sound of a thousand facepalms cascading down from the corporation’s PR department.

Then, an internal committee put together by Cohen has just recommended a makeover for the sixth and seventh floors of Broadcasting House, only 18 months after the headquarters was extensively rebuilt at a cost of over £1 billion. Carpets will be torn up, and the open-plan floors, occupied by television employees and freelancers, will be given “themes”, including, it seems, giant posters and “streetscape art” representing Albert Square and the Queen Vic around the hot desks on the seventh floor.

Both incidents had the Daily Mail rolling its eyes into the back of its head. This, after all, was perfect clickbait. Along with soft porn and body fascism – the usual enticements to the raging troglodytes who inhabit the underworld beneath the online articles – BBC-bashing is a surefire winner. The headlines ran: “I could earn DOUBLE elsewhere: £320,000-a-year BBC TV chief defends huge pay packet” and “New carpets at BBC’s £1bn HQ … just months after it opened.”

New carpets. That’s what all this turns on. Understanding the politics of carpets in the BBC probably requires the skills of a symbologist. But I’ll do my best to explain it – and why W1A misses its satiric target by a country mile.

Put simply, the BBC is an institution of fixed and firm hierarchies. These rigidities have always been there – a legacy, partly, of the civil service model on which the institution was founded. More recently, with rampant inflation in executive pay, and with the lingering effects of Birtist managerialism, the BBC has become something of a microcosm of Britain itself – with its yawning gap between the pay and conditions of executives and the broadcasting masses.

Last year, BBC director-general Lord Hall toured Silicon Valley and came back enthusing about the flat and fluid management structures he found at places like the Google campus in Mountain View. But the idea that you could transplant these to “New” Broadcasting House sounds faintly preposterous.

Imagine trying to do it – unpicking ingrained privilege at the BBC would not just be about pay. Gold-plated pensions, prospects of career development through the upper tiers of the command structure, expensive training courses, and, for many, a job for life. All of these – not to mention an overweening sense of (mostly white) middle-class entitlement – are denied, by and large, to the freelancers and short-term staff who do the heavy lifting as programme makers.

But the problems of an atrophied (and sometimes absurdly obsequious) hierarchy within the BBC run deeper than that. It’s not just about executives versus the rest. It’s about the place of broadcasting staff within the institution as a whole. They are, pretty much, at the bottom of the pile.

Large numbers of television staff – some of whom will actually inhabit the sixth and seventh floors – are employed on short-term contracts or are freelancers on fixed-term deals lasting just a few weeks. Unlike Google employees, who receive company stock, BBC staff – researchers, assistant producers, line producers, directors and series producers – sign away their intellectual property rights for rates of pay that are, at best, somewhat less than the independent sector in London, but with worse terms and conditions, including six-day working.

Their place in the pecking order at the corporation is spatially defined by office privileges. Do you need to guess who gets the offices and who’s left with the hot desks? I once worked on a floor (at the unlamented White City) where the production staff and their hot desks (so aptly named) were hemmed in by daylight-stealing offices, lived in by people whose managerial occupations I simply couldn’t work out; they were certainly nothing to do with programme-making.

Which brings me to why I think W1A is such a disappointment. John Morton, the writer, was responsible for the brilliant Twenty Twelve, which essentially parodied the preparation for the Olympics by spinning the whole thing as a rerun of New Labour’s grand folly of the Millennium Dome, with all its achingly self-regarding bureau-babble and really, really bad ideas.

Of course, the BBC has plenty of all this, and it must have seemed obvious, in a way, to treat the corporation as a spin-off of Twenty Twelve. Both targets share the same mindset. Indeed, the BBC of the Birt era may have been the template for the awful “mission-to-explain” thinking that meant the Dome being filled with such puzzlingly unentertaining guff. It was Disney as reimagined by Mandelson.

However, there’s a danger with W1A that in tackling this mindset it misses the bigger picture of the institutionalised chasm at the BBC between the executive aristos and the staff proles. If, for example, you’re going to satirise the kind of empty-headed media wannabe who’s hired as an intern but is so useless he can’t even get an order for a cappuccino right, it’s perhaps worth remembering that in real life, that intern is likely to be a recent, highly indebted graduate, incurring yet more debts to gain the first tenuous foothold on the programme-making ladder. He or she is also likely, in my experience, to be a little brighter than some of the time-servers holding down six figures until retirement or pension-enhanced redundancy.

So Morton might want to take a closer look at Danny Cohen’s excursions into Daily Mail territory. Contrast his defence of executive salaries on the grounds, basically, of “because I’m worth it”, with his committee’s distinctly Marie Antoinette moment of “let them have carpets”.

And that, I’d argue, is the real meaning of carpets. Not, as the Mail would have it, a symbol of chronic waste, but rather a cheap, Google-lite sop to the people who do the hard work at the BBC for genuinely little reward, little sense of security, and little thanks.

Still, I’m hopeful that W1A will get there in the end. And if it does, a special request to John Morton: please, please do universities next.

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