Page last updated at 21:50 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Buck stops at the top of the BBC

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

Lesley Douglas
Lesley Douglas nurtured the careers of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross

The joke used to be, when the BBC got into crises such as this, "deputy heads will roll". Not any more.

Last year the controller of BBC One, Peter Fincham, resigned over the misleading editing of a trailer for a documentary about the Queen.

Now Lesley Douglas, the controller of Radio 2 and 6 Music, and also the BBC's controller of popular music, is going too.

Most of the headlines will inevitably focus on the 12-week suspension of Jonathan Ross - a move that will cost him well over a million pounds.

It's an almost unprecedented sanction for a presenter of his popularity and the BBC director-general Mark Thompson says it must be seen as a final warning.

But don't underestimate the significance of the fact that the controllers of the BBC's two most popular networks on radio and television have fallen on their swords in little more than a year.

In this increasingly accountable world, two of the BBC's most successful, creative and experienced programme executives have departed because of serious lapses on their networks.

Second lapse

After resigning, Fincham became director of programmes at ITV, BBC One's main rival.

Similarly, Douglas is unlikely to be short of offers, with commercial radio networks - for whom Radio 2 has been something of a bete noire - likely to be queuing at her door.

But that will not make up for the loss of one of the most powerful and rewarding jobs in British broadcasting.

In her resignation letter, Lesley Douglas said the decision was hers alone. She said the events of the last two weeks had happened on her watch and she believed it right that she take responsibility for what happened.

It's still not entirely clear how the chain of command broke down and the offending programme came to be approved for broadcast. Those details may emerge when the BBC completes its final report into the incident.

But one factor in her decision may have been the knowledge that this was a second serious lapse on her watch.

Last year, a senior executive at 6 Music resigned, and a producer left, after the station was found to have deceived audiences by deliberately conducting competitions unfairly on the Liz Kershaw Show. The BBC was fined 115,000 for this by the media regulator Ofcom.

Original broadcaster

More crucially, Lesley Douglas was also the person who hired both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross and nurtured their careers.

She did so precisely because of their edgy affinity with younger audiences - who've generally reacted with dismay at the departure of the two stars.

On Radio 4's Feedback programme last year, she defended Brand as one of radio's most original and creative broadcasters:

"I think Russell is in the mould of people on radio who throughout the decades have pushed the boundaries, from Kenny Everett to Chris Morris to Jonathan Ross and now Russell Brand. He is a great comedian."

Lesley Douglas started at Radio 2 more than 20 years ago, as a researcher on the David Jacobs Show, later producing presenters such as Gloria Hunniford, Ken Bruce and Brian Matthew.

With the previous controller Jim Moir, she modernised the network, bringing in new presenters such as Ross, Brand and Chris Evans - affirming Radio 2 as the UK's most popular station, with a broad mix of music and more than 13 million listeners a week.

Yet behind the scenes all was not well, as the BBC Trust makes clear in its statement.

Shackle fear

Despite a supposed tightening up of the rules after last year's phone scandals, it says: "Editorial and compliance procedures in non-news areas of the BBC's Audio and Music department are inadequate and need to be strengthened."

It has ordered an apology to be broadcast on Radio 2 for the "serious and deliberate breaches of the BBC editorial guidelines on offence and privacy" - and an immediate tightening of the compliance procedures in any programme deemed to represent a high level of editorial risk.

As Mark Thompson put it: "The ultimate editorial responsibility for BBC programmes lies with producers and editorial managers. The consequences of errors of judgment are therefore more serious for managers."

But there's a danger, as a former BBC head of comedy pointed out shortly before the announcement of the BBC's actions.

Jon Plowman, who produced Absolutely Fabulous and French and Saunders, said a kneejerk reaction could shackle the BBC's most original and creative comedies.

"Clearly what Jonathan and Russell did was kind of forget there was an audience and I think you can't ever forget that there's an audience.

"But there's a danger that you end up in a world that simply does Last of the Summer Wine and never does The Thick of It or The Office."

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