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