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BBC's Digital Moneypit Initiative known to be 'pile of dung' for years

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BBC executives ignored warnings that the corporation's £100m+ digital media extravaganza project DMI was on the rocks - and now it's being reported that the National Audit Office had been misled about the state of the project.

The extravagant scheme was cancelled by new Director General Tony Hall last month, with almost £100m spent and no resulting benefits or assets - and the BBC's technology chief is currently on paid leave. The real cost is likely to be higher. As it is, the money wasted exceeds the annual budget of BBC4 and CBeebies put together, and is roughly comparable to Radio 4's annual budget.

The Guardian reports that warnings made to management in 2010 were unheeded. Potentially more damaging is the revelation, also by Bill Garrett, a former technology chief at the Corporation, that the BBC may have misled the National Audit Office about the project.

Garrett says he wrote to the Trust a year ago with his concerns, which were widely known in the industry. The Trust, which is what the old BBC Board of Governors is called since being given a New Labour-style makeover in 2007, has commissioned PwC to investigate the DMI failure. The newspaper also voices concerns as to why it took so long to close down the grandiose scheme. One journalist described how DMI was characterised by a senior BBC executive as "a steaming pile of shit" in 2009, and how this state of affairs was "an open secret for years".

DMI was intended to replace tape and give every production team digital access to every other team's material on any device - a spectacularly unnecessary goal. A flavour of the lunacy that resulted can be gauged from this presentation from Raymond Le Gue, Programme Director, Digital Media Initiative, and subsequently 'Technology Controller of Creative Technologies and Workflows' until March this year.

"Staff play a game called production. And another game called archiving," le Gue boasts. "It's a giant brain," he adds, joking that once DMI completed the BBC could be called the "British Brain Corporation". Le Gue's expertise was gleaned while setting up a computer animation company in the 1990s. Go figure.

So DMI was hugely overambitious. But it was also regarded as untouchable - one of seven 'strategic' initiatives at the BBC, on a par with moving to Salford. Last year it was reported that "Severely stressed" BBC staff were sent to the private Priory Clinic - on the license fee - to recover, as a result of DMI.

What is surprising is that the National Audit Office gave it a green light in 2011.

"The technology solution for the Programme has so far proven to be valid," the government accountants concluded after an investigation into the technology transfer of assets from Siemens, and lauded the ambition of the scheme.

The NAO report revealed that the BBC Trust, which describes itself as acting to get value for money for the license fee payer on its website, became a cheerleader for the project. The NAO noted:

In June 2010 the BBC Trust gave weight to the strategic benefits of moving the BBC more fully into digital technology and the non-financial benefits expected from the Programme, such as improved creativity and increased partnership working with other organisations and potential public access to the BBC archives.

"Non-financial benefits"? "Public access to the archive"? Where there should have been realism and healthy scepticism, the Trust was dazzled by utopian digital woo. ®

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