A new source of ready cash for increasing the Doctor Who budget has been indirectly identified by that scourge of the willfully ignorant, Private Eye. If the article in the Media News section of the today’s Eye (see below) tells us anything, it’s that large sums of money could be saved and an improvement in the Corporation’s overall service guaranteed by simply abolishing the BBC press office. Think of the much better uses that money could be put to if it were redirected towards Cardiff. It’d certainly reduce the production team’s collective blood pressure and it would free up Steven Moffat to write more devilishly intricate plots for Doctor Who if he no longer had to indulge in cloak and dagger scheming in the real world – which isn’t his strong point.
What exactly has the BBC press office ever done for us? It’s not as though they have a difficult job. They have umpteen blogs just begging to be fed the most trivial content about their favourite show and a captive audience willing to swallow the most ludicrously unlikely excuses for anything. They have Pravda waiting to cut n paste the most inane annnouncements from the BBC into its glossy pages. Yet they still manage to fuck up everything they touch with their trademark headless chicken act. How long from the 2005 relaunch did it take for the BBC press office to drop its trousers and defecate noisly on the hard creative work of so many people? It took barely a week, as I recall, for them to tell the world that Christopher Eccleston would be leaving at the end of the first year. Have these people not got the first idea about co-ordinating messages? Panic seems to be their default setting. If the little old lady who edits the Chipping Sodbury Parish Gazette phoned them to ask if the third extra on the right in The Impossible Astronaut would be available to open their village fete, you can imagine the BBC press office cracking under the pressure and starting to spread the blame as far as possible: “Oh my god, oh my god – enough of the third degree. We admit it, Matt Smith did assassinate Kennedy. Mark Gatiss did fake the moon landings. Steven Moffat did kidnap Shergar.”
So much money could be saved from abolishing the BBC press office that they might even have enough cash to pay the minimum wage tea-boy at BBC Cardiff an extra five pounds a week to double as Steven Moffat’s PR minder. When there’s a media fire to be put out, widespread confusion to be untangled, irrational anger to be soothed, what better solution than to turn to Twitter? Unless you think that confining your response to fewer than 140 characters might just increase the confusion. No shit, Sherlock. Oops. Did I just say Sherlock?
The latest edition of Private Eye carried the following article:
WHO ARE YOU KIDDING?
Within hours of the last Private Eye being published, a panicked BBC press officer was on the blower begging to have our story about how problems behind the scenes meant there would be no full series of Doctor Who in 2012 read down the phone to him. There then followed a fumbling attempt at spin.
At 5.25 that evening BBC1’s head of communications announced on Twitter: “Doctor Who is returning. Fourteen new episodes have been commissioned with Matt Smith as the Doctor.” What the BBC would not say, however, was how many of those episodes were actually scheduled for next year.
As angry Who fans bombarded the Eye with online demands that we issue an “apology and retraction”, showrunner Steven Moffat went on the offensive. “Private Eye seems like such fun until it’s YOUR friends they’re spreading nasty, inaccurate gossip about. How horrible,” he tweeted the following morning. Which bits of the story he considered inaccurate, he would not say.
But BBC1 controller Danny Cohen was quite happy to confirm what was accurate. Cohen used a conference appearance a week after the Eye was published to officially confirm a lack of Doctor Who for 2012. “There will be some episodes, but there won’t be a full series. We won’t have a 13-part run.” He blamed Moffat’s workload, specifically the fact that he is also the executive producer of Sherlock, the second series of which he is working on right now for the BBC. “That’s the genuine reason,” he assured questioners.
Moffat himself, meanwhile, took to Twitter again with a terse message: “Misquotes and misunderstandings. But I’m not being bounced into announcing the cool stuff before we’re ready.”
He reckons? Two days later, the BBC News website gave him one hell of a bounce, publishing a story with copious quotes from Cohen, putting the full blame on Moffat for the fact that there will not be a full series of Doctor Who next year: “Sherlock success will hit Doctor Who, says BBC1 boss.”
It took just minutes for a furious Moffat to strike back on Twitter: “The scheduling of Dr Who has got NOTHING to do with Sherlock.” In response to a message from fellow writer Neil Gaiman as to whether he was “being shafted”, Moffat replied publicly: “It’s not your imagination. Unbelievable. Unacceptable.” While the BBC amended its story to include Moffat’s denial, Cohen has declined to issue any kind of clarification.
So there you go. Doesn’t sound like there are any problems behind the scenes at all, does it? But in the meantime BBC Worldwide has already started reining back its plans for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary in 2013 because it’s worried that demand for merchandise will have dropped due to the shortage of episodes between now and then – especially if the BBC goes with one plan now being mooted for the handful of 2012 episodes, that of broadcasting them stripped across a single week.
Much of this Twitter-twattery smacks to me of the culture of any large public sector organisation (and I work in one) of repeating til you’re blue in the face and in defiance of all the evidence that every one of your colleagues is wonderful right up to the moment when you find yourself in a difficult corner at which point you reach for a curved dagger of intricate Oriental design and stab the nearest colleague in the back.
The funniest part of this whole affair is the picture of the angry Who fans bombarding Private Eye with online demands that they issue an “apology and retraction”. Get a life, people (says a blogger). The fandom mindset at work – I don’t want it to be true therefore it must not be true.
The second funniest thing about it all is Steven Moffat’s tweet: “Private Eye seems like such fun until it’s YOUR friends they’re spreading nasty, inaccurate gossip about. How horrible.” What a deep well the English language is. Think of the many words available to strike back at such horrible nastiness – gross lies, malicious falsehoods, baseless libel, actionable slander. No, not strong enough. The gossip is so wide of the mark that the only word strong enough to describe it is “inaccurate”. Given that it’s Twitter, and that “lies” would have taken up 6 fewer characters, he must have had good reason to choose “inaccurate”. In other words, this nasty gossip is essentially true with the occasional wrong detail.
It was the policy of Alistair Campbell (Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor), when an embarrassing scandal broke in the media (e.g. government minister caught with Swedish prostitute), to not bother trying to spin the substance of the story but rather to attack minor inaccuracies in the reported story (e.g. she was actually Norwegian) as a means of distracting the media and casting doubt on the whole story by association. Fans of The West Wing may remember the scene where the president’s staff have received an advanced draft of a soon-to-be-published trashy exposé of the White House by a former employee and are meeting to agree a media strategy for responding to the expected revelations. Someone at the meeting reads out from the draft: “The President was playing a round of golf with Toby Ziegler, the prickly, mumbling Communications Director whose inner bitter darkness spelled the break-up of the one marriage we know about.” There follows an embarrassed pause as everyone in the room tries to avoid catching Toby’s eye. Then the Press Secretary leans across and identifies the inaccuracy in the story: “It was miniature golf, wasn’t it?”
As for “Private Eye seems like such fun until it’s YOUR friends”, that’s an interesting Diane Abbott moment from Moffat. Did he use to delight in other people getting screwed over but no longer? Has Moffat now seen the light about how the gossip in Private Eye can be hurtful, or is he happy for it to continue just as long as it doesn’t touch him and his friends? If the latter, then he’s truly taken on the mantle of Russell T Davies. Remember how, if you were one of his circle of TV writing pals, RTD would enthuse about how wonderful it was that you’d been an obsessive Doctor Who fan from birth and how this gave you a valuable insight into the show? But, if you were one of the little people and presumed to have an opinion, then obsessive Doctor Who fans were sad losers whose views were worthless?
As so often with uncomfortable rumours about Doctor Who, we start off with an outright denial. Then we find out piece by piece over a protracted period that most of it is true. Coincidentally, another gem in today’s Private Eye is a quote from the 19th century poet, Giuseppe Belli:
Truth is like the shits
When it gets out of control and it runs
You waste your time clenching your ass
Twisting and trembling to hold it in.
The pass-the-buck blame culture at the BBC reminds me of nothing so much as a horror film which has been doing the rounds called The Human Centipede. Only the BBC centipede forms an unbroken circle. I shan’t elaborate.
Just for the record, as a writer, plotter, producer and general ideas man, I adore Steven Moffat’s work. There was rarely anything to touch his work in the RTD era, Series 5 was the best thing since Series 1 and 2. Though I’m still somewhat on the fence over the current series, in the words of the late Father Octavian, I have faith. I just wish that he’d quit acting as a one-man fire brigade when it comes to fighting Doctor Who rumours and tell the BBC press office and the controller of BBC1 that, if they fuck with him or his show again, he’ll pack his bags and leave to put deathless prose into the mouth of Captain Haddock (that’s Haddock, not Hadoke).
If we’re not to have a full season in 2012, so be it. I’ll be disappointed but life will go on. Just have the balls to tell us. If someone somewhere has made that decision, let them have the courage to explain their reasons. What’s wrong with them living or dying by the decisions they’re paid pots of cash to make? It’s not like the team at Cardiff has never hung one of their number out to dry in the last six years when it’s suited them. Just don’t try manipulating us. You only succeed in making yourselves look as though your left hand doesn’t know what your right is doing and that gives no-one any confidence. Let’s face it, a Doctor Who fan who’s worked on the bins all his life would make a more adept media manipulator and news manager than half the people in Cardiff who try it and usually end up getting their fingers burned.
When they announced that 2011’s Doctor Who would be split into two halves, I suspected from the start that it was part of a plan to move the show away from it’s recent Spring to Summer schedule and return it to it’s traditional Autumn to Spring schedule. Whether this was from nostalgia on Steven Moffat’s part, or a feeling that a cold dark evening was the more atmospheric time to be watching DW or the idea that the show might get better ratings at that time of year, I was happy if that was going to be the case. And everything that has happened since has seemed to back this up. If the predicted next series of one half at the end of 2012 and the other half at the start of 2013 comes to pass, who cares if it’s brought about through budgetary and organisational chaos? We’ll end up with the show at it’s proper time of year, and then there’ll be no reason to change back.
If this was part of the plan though, why couldn’t Moffat and the BBC just say so? Why did they have to come out with all the PR-speak about wanting to ensure that the little kiddies never had to wait more than a few months for their next fix of DW (a claim that could now backfire spectacularly on them in 2012)? Or that the only way to have a mid-season cliffhanger was to split the series in half? I never minded RTD lying through his teeth that the Master would never return or that Torchwood and DW would never cross over. That was all to keep as much of the surprise intact as possible. I smiled at the drivel about the Telltytubby daleks being only an officer class while the vast majority of Daleks would remain in the 2005 design. It might be specious bollocks but I don’t expect Moffat to publicly admit that his team royally fucked up the Dalek redesign and needed to backtrack on it. But why make up stories about other stuff?
So, when Steven Moffat enjoins us to ignore the latest Private Eye story, he can’t complain if some of us wonder if he’s being entirely straightforward. There are shades of the boy who cried wolf. Suppose that the two Private Eye stories this month are only 50% accurate, they’ll still have told us more about how DW and the BBC are run than we’d ever have learned from official sources.