The BBC, the Bookings computer, and the Parliamentary Committee

I can tell this story without breaching confidentiality because it’s already a matter of public record. I worked for the BBC World Service in a department of Studio Managers (sound mixers, studio operations, and so on) - on any one day about 70 people would be on duty, handling a range of transmissions and recordings in 40-odd languages and a like number of studios - so several hundred commitments each day.

Matching commitments to Studio Managers so that people with the appropriate skills were matched to the appropriate commitments was done by very skilled ‘Allocators’ - not a job I would have liked to attempt.

Around the late 1980s, the Management thought up the idea that these expensive allocators could be replaced by a computer which would automatically allocate Studio Managers (SMs) to commitments. A firm of computer consultants was hired to create the programming.

They breezed in, confident that they could do this easily. They examined the requirements (rather cursorily, I suspect) and started work. Objections from the Allocators that they were ignoring certain potential problems were met with ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’.

On of my colleagues was incarcerated in a small office for weeks, drawing up a list of commitments and another of SMs, and attaching a ‘skill’ level in each case.

And guess what: it never worked. It never came anywhere near working. We had a terminal in the duty office which contained nothing more than the staff addresses (which we had on a card index) and that was unplugged when one of my colleagues objected to it (I think because it also contained the staff numbers).

In the end it disappeared into the stationery cupboard and was never switched on again.

All this cost a horrendous amount of money, to the point where some time in the early 1990s Our Masters were summoned to a Parliamentary Committee to explain themselves. Some of us watched a video tape of this in the duty office... it was most enjoyable to watch senior management looking very uncomfortable.

All very amusing so far, but then it suddenly got hilarious. One of the MPs on the committee obviously thought he was Perry Mason, because he started asking ‘penetrating’ questions, the first of which was ‘Did the BBC employ any foreign nationals’...

Well obviously we did, hundreds of them... and he knew this perfectly well. What he was trying on was to get evidence for his pet theory, which was that all these irresponsible foreigners would go into studios and broadcast their own propaganda, and the people running the language services, being English, wouldn’t understand the language and so wouldn’t know what was happening.

All this was of course arrant nonsense, and by this time we were all laughing hysterically and hanging onto the furniture.

I don’t know who this MP was. I hope he was never put in charge of anything.