Leaked letter: ‘A toxic culture of fear and paranoia’ at the BBC, from the D-G downNews
We have obtained an excoriating letter sent to the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, by the co-directors of the BBC Singers. The letter mentions aggressive acts and inaccurate statements by senior BBC officials, all of whom are named within.
It appears that only one member of the BBC executive ever heard the BBC Singers perform before a decision was taken to abolish the ensemble.
Here’s the letter:
From Jonathan Manners and Rob Johnston, Acting Co-Directors of the BBC Singers
cc. Musician’s Union (on behalf of the BBC Singers)
National Union of Journalists (our union)
Sir Nick Serota – Independent Director, BBC Board
Sir Damon Buffini – Deputy Chair, BBC Board
Richard Sharp – Chair, BBC Board
Dear Richard, 13 March 2023
Whilst we are sure that the BBC will be hearing from the Musicians Union in their official capacity as the union representatives of the BBC Singers, as Chairman of the BBC, we wanted to write directly to you to raise our serious concerns. The events of the last six months, culminating in the appalling decision to close the BBC Singers last week has caused an overwhelming response of condemnation from a large number of eminent musicians both in the UK and around the world, including a petition on change.org now containing signatures from over 100,000 license fee payers and members of the public. Following discussions with our colleagues within the BBC and external industry professionals, we feel it is our duty as BBC employees to raise serious questions about the conduct of your senior management team, together with the lack of any credible process that has led to the purported closure of the BBC Singers. We have taken time to consider the best way to raise our concern and, given their severity and the wide-spread distrust of those in authority at the BBC, we feel we have no other option but to bring these matters to the attention of the board.
Having spoken to many of our BBC colleagues over the last week, there is a recurring narrative of toxic culture that now exists at the BBC, reflected in the working environment from the Director General downwards. Our own experiences of aggressive and confrontational dialogue (particularly with Lorna Clarke) have been echoed time and time again in accounts from other colleagues. A culture of fear and paranoia has been created as seismic decisions on the corporation’s future are taken at speed without any proper analysis or meaningful consultation.
We would like to meet with you to make you aware of the detailed facts. Lorna Clarke would have been best placed to respond to these for you, but we are aware that as of last Friday, she is on annual leave for two weeks – a fact that only highlights the lack of foresight and responsibility from your senior team following the proposed destruction of the BBC’s professional choir and cuts within the corporation’s English orchestras. Whilst Lorna Clarke has attended 1 x Prom in which the BBC Singers were taking part, you are the only other person in the senior team who has heard the BBC Singers – no one else responsible for this decision has taken the time to visit one of our own-promotion concerts, rehearsals, recordings or education events. Not even the author of the Classical Review.
Lorna Clarke’s behaviour during this process has been questioned frequently – indeed at a meeting with the BBC Singers last Thursday, Lorna was overtly dismissive of questioning making clear her lack of time for this process. She left the meeting early leaving her colleague, Simon Webb, who wept in the room in front of the BBC Singers. This is not an isolated incident with your team, and we understand a similar situation took place with a senior manager in Radio 2 relating to Ken Bruce’s early departure from the network. It is no coincidence that the calamitous handling of the proposed closure of the BBC Singers came from this same person who is responsible for the management of the departures of Ken, Steve Wright and Paul O’Grady.
There is a stark contrast between the reality of negotiating with the senior management at the BBC
and the hyperbole that is reported in external and internal comms. The press release on the classical
restructure that was released last week was a crass embarrassment and neglectful representation of
the facts, and it is staggering that an organisation that is supposed to represent the best in worldwide
broadcasting felt that the way the BBC has communicated its plans to the public would do anything
other than create the mess you now find yourselves in.
For clarity, here are the facts we would like to discuss:
• The messaging around the closure of the BBC Singers has been shambolic and created chaos. On
Tuesday, Lorna Clarke presented the closure as a fait accompli to the BBC Singers, which reflected the
BBC’s press release. Two days later, she and Simon Webb said that this was an error and that the
Singers were now starting a consultation process with their union and the BBC about their future. On
Friday, Charlotte Moore sent out an internal comms message confirming the closure of the BBC
Singers. Later the same afternoon we heard from a senior member of staff (who wishes to remain
anonymous) that the consultation period now promised to the BBC Singers is actually only for the
orchestras. How is such mishandling acceptable? For the sake of clarity we do not accept that the BBC
Singers are excluded from consultation in this process.
• The inadequacy and inaccuracy of the BBC’s Classical Review. During a meeting with Rachel Jupp (who
wrote the report) she informed us that she had spoken to just two people about the UK choral industry,
both outside the BBC, and that one of those was a child. The report confirms that there was no
interaction or consultation with any of the many choral experts in the UK. This highlights the
dangerous neglect by senior members of staff towards the classical music offering of the BBC.
• We have recently discovered that after this report, which barely mentions singing, was published in
the first half of 2022, an internal memo was sent to the Heads of Departments and Controllers of the
BBC’s network radio stations which recommended that the BBC Singers be axed. Inappropriately,
Mohit Bakaya (Controller of BBC Radio 4) shared this confidential proposal with other BBC staff
members at an external industry event in Germany in October 2022. If that were not unprofessional
enough, the person with whom he shared this information was the Assistant Producer of the BBC
Singers who was at the event. The Assistant Producer (able to afford the BBC greater discretion and
confidentiality than the controller of one of your network stations) reported the matter to us, and we
challenged Lorna Clarke and Rachel Jupp the next working day. Lorna’s eventual reaction was that
Mohit was ‘confused’ with a hypothetical interview question for the role of Controller of BBC Radio 3.
Had we been given the truth, we could have instigated proper dialogue at that time involving the
unions, and enabled the BBC to consult with leading figures in our industry. We were however told
on numerous occasions that no such document existed, no decisions had been made about the future
of the BBC Singers, and that we should continue our advance planning into 2024 and beyond.
• As a result of the above mentioned internal memo, no industry professionals were consulted on the
impact of shutting the BBC Singers. The only result of Mohit Bakaya’s indiscretion was that we were
asked to write numerous papers and make suggestions as to how the BBC Singers could reduce its
budget whilst still providing the BBC with choral content. It is totally apparent from subsequent events
that this process was a sham. At no time were the Directors of the BBC’s Orchestras invited to join up
with us to work together in finding solutions to enable all ensembles to keep working.
• Despite numerous requests, Lorna Clarke has never been able to offer a financial figure for us to work
towards. Indeed, the exact figures that will be saved from these cuts have never been provided or
publicised. In our meeting with Lorna and Simon on 09/03/23, Lorna admitted that she doesn’t know
what the exact savings will be from these cuts.
• Charlotte Moore stated in her email to the corporation last Tuesday – ‘We’re confident this strategy
is the right one to respond to financial challenges, future-proof our ensembles and invest in education’.
However, we challenged this with Lorna and Simon on Thursday, and they admitted that there is no
strategy as yet, no budgets have been created and this new strategy has not been costed. There has
been no research at all into how this new strategy can deliver value for all audiences. The non-existent
strategy is pure fabrication. Indeed, it may even be more expensive than keeping the BBC Singers.
This is an accurate account of the shameful neglect your senior team show towards the arts, and the
choral sector in particular. Repeatedly, members of your senior executive team have been aggressive
in their manner, inconsiderate in their approach and delivery of this devastating news, and
bombastically uninformed in their replies to questions posed to them from our staff members.
We look forward to your response and hope that we will be allowed proper opportunity to find a
better solution for the BBC: maintaining our choral offering, via the BBC Singers, within a transparent
budget. In any event we believe that you should now withdraw the planned closure of the BBC Singers
and cuts to the Philharmonic, Concert and Symphony Orchestras as the process is entirely flawed.
The events of the past months have shocked us all, and we believe they go against the BBC’s core
values. We both have no confidence in the senior management of the BBC, and feel that as Chair of
the corporation you need to take full responsibility for the crisis we are now in. We are both gravely
aware of the professional connotations of taking this drastic measure in contacting you, but on behalf
of the artform we represent, for the BBC, for the world-class singers and players of the BBC’s
professional choir and orchestras, and for the sake of posterity, we need to bring these matters to
Rob Johnston and Jonathan Manners
The BBC Whiners
What are you on about pal?
Do you ever listen to classical music? Thought not.
No, as a business oriented administrator I am only interested in a company’s net profits and fully understand such ruthless and cold hearted decisions taken by BBC’s higher management. If you can get choral sounds cheaper through hiring amateurs, so be it!
And who pays attention to sound quality these days anyway?
A compressed recording streamed through the web does the job on my daily drive to work.
Btw, a colleague told me that you can also use synthesizers to imitate the sound of a choir.
They even win Oscars with synthetical music nowadays.
The use of synthesized voices is actually true having being involved with the electronica scene for many years
Gustavo. You’re a prize ignoramus. You clearly have no idea about music or its management. Read the above letter and absorb it’s salient points-ie lack of consultation, lack of information, lack of awareness about BBC singers etc etc their history in relation to BBC values. I have absolute contempt for people like you.
That is a sad, ludicrous and uninformed comment – worthy of a BBC management plant. Who would pay to hear a synthesised choir singing Bach? No one. Your financial acumen is clearly also non existent.
I perceive that you are of the tribe of Goliath.
In case you are also ignorant of the Old Testament, it means that you are a Philistine.
“It appears that only one member of the BBC executive ever heard the BBC Singers perform before a decision was taken to abolish the ensemble.”
Has any BBC executive of any branch ever not fallen asleep in a classical concert?
Business people tend to enjoy their cocktails, and the awareness of being seen.
Dear Maestro Dudamel: What an honor to reply to you!! Even though you are not a woman or a person of color, I admire your conducting greatly. Best of luck in Philharmonic Hall!!
Philistine and elitist
Somehow, I think ‘Gustavo’ is speaking here, and below, with a sense of deep irony. (At least, I hope so!)
Lord Reith must be turning in his grave.
The BBC has been destroyed by diversity box ticking. The folk running it would not know a crotchet from a quaver, let alone Bach from Buxtehude.
It needs to educate, inform and entertain. At present it does all three very badly.
Those running the BBC are actual Tories, they don’t do diversity box ticking.
Oh yes they do. Radio 3 is awash with it, with ethnic and gender quotas for composers.
Suggesting that Lorna’s alleged failings are due to her blackness is beyond disgusting and completely pathetic, Doc. 81 people agreeing with you is wild. Be better.
Lorna Clarke’s colour is totally irrelevant, as are her age, gender and sexuality (none of which I know or care about). We all know that. But there is a strong and widespread suspicion that her being black was a factor in her occupying the position she does within the BBC, since she appears to have no other relevant credentials. And that’s what worries people!
Leaving out race, her objectives are clear in her Music Week interview of 8-3-2023 “For now, I’ll be getting on with delivering as much pop music content as is possible.”
Commissars are appointed for their loyalty to the Party, rather than intellect or experience.
Really a complete shambles, unbelievable!
Genuinely jaw-dropping. Not just the content, but the fact it was written at all. This isn’t going to improve the BBC bosses’ week AT ALL!
Having just seen that Mr Webb wept when Lorna Clark left the room, can I compassionately share the above link to the BBC employee assistance program which can offer support at this difficult time. Mental health is so important, and I know how much it matters at the BBC.
@CC: A future in stand-up awaits. Bravo.
Ken Bruce, as mentioned in the letter, departed to somewhere that appears to value his experience and talent. If only the BBC Singers and orchestras could do the same. When people feel forced to write correspondence of this nature to virtually beg for their own existence it is surely time to shake the dust from your feet.
The decision to close the BBC singers is an example of desperately flawed economics seeking to save money at the expense of excellence, decent and exciting programming, leading, eventually, to little programming of any worth and, after passing through the Classic FM dumbing down phase, to the the abolition of Radio 3 itself. That would save a packet of money!
This depraved and philistine government would certainly favour the ending of BBC altogether, although it may have something of a reprieve as the BBC board and management currently ‘belong to’ the current government in effect. Only the ending of this government will preserve it in anything like its current and/or best form.
Wow. Absolutely extraordinary lack of basic management, let alone decency, displayed by the BBC big wigs yet again.
Given the clearly toxic way the BBC is run this is a brave and for the sake of the writers, hopefully not a foolhardy action. Sadly, given the background of the person they are communicating with I doubt they will get any satisfaction. Indeed, it would be surprising if anyone in the BBC even engages with their concerns.
Aside from signing the petition there appears little than we, the listeners can do. Indeed, after the Lineker fiasco the ‘suits’ will be out to wreak their revenge on someone less powerful than him and what better than a group of “mere” singers who are probably too representative of the ‘privilege’ they are determined to wipe out?
The BBC’s core values are transmitting woke garbage throughout the world while calling itself the “unbiased” “international perspective.” It cannot wind down fast enough for me. All of it.
Simple…an excellent response showing how flawed the BBC upper management levels are totally flawed and not fit for purpose.
Almost all-white group pushing a “aggressive Black Woman” trope, maybe they should rethink
Ah, I see the American readership has joined us!
I urge the BBC to hire Mrs. Tár as conductor. She ticks all the boxes: female, lesbian, etc. And she was really great in the movie. If she is unavailable perhaps they can hire a blind Eskimo for diversity. Please keep me posted!!
It’s universally possible for someone to be bad at their job. Nowhere in this article is her race mentioned, though one commenter did lowkey suggest her failings are due to her blackness which is despicable. Aggression or other traits *you might expect in your quoted “black woman” trope aren’t mentioned. Her alleged failings are purely professional. You are wrong on this.
Absolutely agree, Seriously. I have just made almost exactly the same point directly to A K-P…
A.K-P: Why have you played the race card here? The two characteristics you mention are not referenced in the letter…
Wow – that is quite some letter.
It should be kept on file by every arts organisation as a model of how to counter the false narratives that are churned out when the organisation is summarily downsized, cut, had its funding scrapped etc by the so called management Tory sucker-uppers who seem intent on destroying everything decent about the arts – not just music – in this country. In one breath they parade how much the creative industries earn for this country, in the next they kneecap every organisation of value they can find. How do they think – if they think at all – the youth of today and tomorrow can be enticed into artistic careers when they see no future in it? Only a few tokenist baubles will be spared in this race to the bottom, and only then because they primarily tick boxes rather than deliver on quality as their raisons d’etre. As if it’s not bad enough that we cannot support our own talent, as a country we’re making it harder, more bureaucratic and expensive for our musicians to work abroad too. Not to mention that world class foreign musicians now cannot always get into the country to play in our premier venues and with our best orchestras, etc. Never in my life did I think that I would live in a country like this. My heart bleeds.
These cuts take place behind a woke smokescreen
of ‘diversity’ and inclusivity’, which comes much cheaper than high quality culture, and which the BBC hopes will protect it from criticism by the Left.
This is a masterpiece : I am not quite sure just how many goolies ( and/or other parts of anatomy ) will be rolling on the floor but I feel sure that even the BBC managers will be feeling extremely sick on receipt of this
On the contrary, if you think the way to start a consultation process to regain your job is by rubbishing the people you will be dealing with, you are frankly naive.
So you’re saying forget the lies and being badly treated and let the disbandment go ahead? Surely telling the the truth is the right thing to do?? Isn’t that what we teach our children?
The tory party clients who lead the BBC are Philistines who care not for the Arts.
We must rid ourselves of these mammon worshipping charlatans.
Good luck to all at BBC Singers.
A complete shambles.
Dumbing down is not levelling up.
A “toxic culture” is now universal. It would seem to be the result of social meeja and odd 21st century management methods. Brexit has certainly exacerbated it.
I hope they save the choir. I recall hearing a Handel and Pepusch concert years ago.
The Left eats itself. Didn’t see that coming!!!
If you think this is about the left, you can’t see very much.
I think you’re missing their point. This letter is not how the corporate world works. Everything in it is correct, but it’s not how progress works. It illustrates perfectly how artists running things usually ends in failure.
Unbelievable that decisions affecting the future of one of the backbones of Classical music in the UK was taken by people who’d never heard them, &, by the sounds of it, never wondered what they did! You couldn’t make it up! Where does one find such inept management?
These cronies keep each other on speed-dial. Mediocrity loves comp.
an absence of live music (especially singing ) at the forthcoming coronation would serve to dramatise the importance of music in our lives.
For instance, some state schools don’t have a music department / singing assemblies etc .
Hilary is correct: we MUST have live music while the great King Charles III is enshrined. Only live music can do Justice to this in-bred inebriated Royal, who will continue to dazzle the British public with his boring uselessness. I suggest hiring Frank Sinatra, Adele, Taylor Swift, Sir Thomas Beecham, Yuja Wang for starters. All conducted by John Williams if he is still alive at that point. This will be glorious!
Something along these lines has happened already. Last year Charles was touring the UK to check out his new realm but in Belfast the Cathedral choir had been scrapped a few months earlier, so for his celebratory service HRH had to make do with an ad hoc group of singers assembled at short notice.
I think it is time King Charles III intervenes. This has now become a Royal matter. His Royal Supreme Holy Emminent High Greatness will resolve this crisis.
Please keep me posted.
Utterly appalled at casual, uninformed decision to axe BBC Singers. I am a professional classical musician with 40 years experience & have played in BBC orchestras.
‘Flunkey’ the Court correspondent in the current issue of Private Eye, page 8 reports on King Brian’s coronation bash at Westminster Abbey. Apparently Brian is trying to sort it out himself!
He wants 6 choirs, 2 sets of fanfare trumpeters and 2 orchestras! It may be a wee bit of a tight squeeze. He might be better off with Chas n Dave!
In 1953 I recall 21 people made a bid for a coronation role because their forebears had once carried a glove, spur or sword and 16 were accepted. ‘Flunkey’ reports, that when the current claims process ended last month about 220 valid claims were made, of which virtually all were rejected. None has yet been formally told of the outcome, even the few who will have a starring role in 10 weeks time!
Presumably by “Brian” you mean His Majesty the King? How brave! How original! And how utterly, bizarrely irrelevant to the topic we are discussing here.
You couldn’t make it up!
I may be wrong, but the consultancy commissioned by the BBC to create the report that led to this restructuring seems to be very light on specific expertise in the music industry. https://www.bop.co.uk/people
Perhaps Richard Sharp could be persuaded to bung the Singers £400,000 of his own dosh.
Do you think the BBC wants to cut orchestras, wants to cut the Singers, wants to amalgamate 2 news rooms, wants to cut BBC 4 to smithereeens?
The BBC has lost 30% income in real terms since 2010 and now has a freeze on its income. Of course nobody wants the parts of the BBC they use cut and immediately suggest other areas for the axe. The real cause for all this angst is the funding forced on it. Why is nobody on here highlighting the reason for these difficult decisions?
Was the meeting with Simon Webb and Lorna Clarke on March 9, 2023?
I ask because I live in the USA where dates are presented differently.
A pity the BBC Management caved in to Lineker and his mates.
The money they’d have saved by sacking them would have paid for the BBC Singers several times over.
This letter says it all. We’ve known for quite some time that the BBC hates classical music because it doesn’t fit in the ‘everybody can do everything’ culture. Tim Davie, Richard Sharpe et al couldn’t care less as long as they shore up ratings with yet more football. Meanwhile we have an utterly ineffectual (and on this matter, utterly silent) ‘Culture Secretary’. We who love, play and sing classical music must start being less polite and far more vociferous. What’s to lose?
Truly appalling management and philistinisn from the upper echelons of the BBC. (The sex/colour of anyone involved is completely irrelevant: bullying and refusal to listen is unacceptable whoever it comes from.)
Having flashbacks to 15 years ago when the CBC axed its orchestra and most of its classical/jazz and live content in a similarly shambolic process devoid of consultation.
Is this letter actually good? There are redundancies, sackings, tough decisions, appraisals and disciplinaries everyday in the private/corporate world. This letter sounds like BBC Singers management aren’t good with confrontation.
Let’s be honest, how many days a week on average do the English BBC performing ensembles work over a year? Really HONESTLY. I’m not talking at busy times, I mean on average.
An average working week; 36 hours. In orchestral terms, that’s 12, 3 hour sessions. The orchestras surely don’t get close to that.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard BBC musicians say how quiet their orchestra is for work. This has always rang alarm bells for me and has seemed like it is only a matter of time before someone counting the pennies realises this. Now they have.
Many of the BBC salaried players have the time to freelance elsewhere, without taking time off. In the real, economic driven world, how can this be justified? Put tradition, emotion and bias aside, think rationally and through the eyes of someone else; these orchestras are part-time but are paid full time. That’s how the BBC have come to make these cuts. Not Tory philistines, not the woke left and diversity box ticking or any other ideology you want to pin this on. Having said that, the ‘decolonisation’ set have been quiet on these cuts. One less brick in the wall they hope to tear down?
The internal fall out isn’t good.
The ugly side of orchestra political is rearing its head. People are upset, emotional and angry. I hear about orchestra member WhatsApp groups, with snide comments about colleague suitability for redundancy, in full swing. Talk of ‘it won’t the same with freelancers’ is rife. The superiority complex of some of those in jobs is never far from the surface.
‘Freelancers are so important to our orchestra’ is swiftly out of the window when jobs are threatened and it’s proposed that freelancers plug the gaps. Then, as the BBCSO’s principal guest conductor Dalia Stasvenza said, “Filling BBC orchestras with more freelances kills what means to be an ensemble”. Thanks Dalia, we don’t really rate you either and I doubt you even know who is a BBC member or not.
I understand angry people are looking for someone to blame and searching for a way to justify their jobs. Saying that adding more freelancers will jeopardise their orchestra’s identity is pretty much all they’ve got.
A few (more) rambling thoughts:
Do BBC musicians who freelance on the side “kill what is to be an ensemble” for the other groups they work with? No? Then why isn’t ok for their orchestra?
If it’s so important to an orchestra’s identity, then why are BBC musicians allowed so much time off, or even any?
The BBC orchestras and singers are working on a model from about 50 years ago but time and a reduction in funding has caught up with them. The privileged position of having relative freedom from immediate economic matters (as non-state orchestas don’t have) has shielded them from big changes. The BBC salaried ‘job for life’ is certainly gone.
The future? All must get into communities with the priority to build new audiences, local and virtual. Not token gestures. Real engagement.
Will the BBCSO become a freelance Proms orchestra on a summer contract?
The BBC CO MUST move to the East Midlands. It could be an exciting opportunity with a population base of 5+ million. If they don’t, they’ll be next to get the chop.
Having played in numerous amateur orchestras on both an ad hoc and rehearsed basis – yes, it does make a difference if the majority are regular members. Freelance bring their own interpretations rather than the collective shared ideal of the performance that has been coached by the conductor.
Rawgabbit, you should open a fish and chip shop. All you need is the fish.
Yawn. A lazy response. That’s your only take away? (No fish & chip shop pun intended)
PART-TIME? do you think musicians just turn up and perform? What about the countless hours of practice? The thousands of unpaid hours for instrumentalists and singers even to reach the standard required by professional choirs and orchestras? Let alone the hours spent maintaining those standards?
That’s two more positions they can cut while they’re at it! I’m not sure what the executive hearing this ensemble (or not) would have had to do with anything, as I doubt it was cut for artistic reasons.
That letter is a perfect example of why you should never let musicians run the business side of anything. If there was a glimmer of hope they’ve extinguished it themselves.
On what basis was the former director of BBC Pop made Director of the whole of BBC Music? Why is she presiding over the demise of the BBC Singers? Quite apart from money-saving, does she have the necessary classical music qualifications, knowledge, experience to be able to make this decision?
“..but on behalf
of the artform we represent, for the BBC, for the world-class singers and players of the BBC’s
professional choir and orchestras, and for the sake of posterity, we need to bring these matters to
This is interesting. He should have mentioned the listener.