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'Silent' staff stood by as £100m BBC IT project tanked – DG

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The BBC's new director general Tony Hall says staff should have spoken up about the catastrophic Digital Media Initiative (DMI).

The utopian media storage project cost the BBC almost £100m since 2010 (and some £81m before then) before it was formally abandoned in May, with the corporation opting to use off-the-shelf software tools instead.

"The thing that worried me most about DMI is the fact that people said we knew all about that, but no one said. That's a problem of culture where fingers are pointed and people don't feel they can own up and say something's wrong," said Hall in an interview, we learn from Ariel, the BBC's staff mag.

Shifting the blame to the workers, rather than the management, for the project's failings is odd – since the DMI's shortcomings were widely known. The only deliverable the BBC will keep is the Fabric archive database, which was far slower and harder to use than the systems it replaced. "Research that would have taken an hour now takes four," notes one producer.

"Once thirty desks had been provided for the 'concept team' on the ground floor of the Broadcast Centre, back in 2007/8, you knew nobody else in broadcasting would be daft enough to embark on this sort of venture," noted one former BBC manager back in February 2011.

BBC projects which cost above £50m require the approval of the BBC Trust, which has a statutory duty to the licence fee payer. "I do not think there has been a single meeting of the Finance Committee [since January 2009] where the subject of DMI in its various guises has not been discussed," Trust appointee Anthony Fry told the Public Accounts Committee in February 2011.

“A number of releases have been successfully delivered and initial feedback from users has been very positive,” the Trust claimed in its response to the audit office’s report on the DMI in 2011. "In the context of the DMI being a complex and cutting edge IT project, the Trust considers this is something of which the BBC should be proud."

BBC management Bill Garrett, the BBC's head of technology in 2010, told the BBC Trust in May 2012 – a full year before DMI was axed – that the project was off the rails and the National Audit Office may have been misled.

Hall told Ariel this week:

I want an organisation that can take risks and do things that are difficult, and learn from our mistakes as opposed to 'You made a mistake, out you go'.

But there isn't much danger of that. The sole fall guy for DMI, chief technology officer John Linwood, who has been suspended on full pay since May while a review is conducted, was paid £140,000 in bonuses on top of his £280,000 per annum salary.

Bootnote

According to a staff survey by the BBC Club at its Archive Centre in Perivale "the 3 most popular classes were Pilates, yoga and meditation". Much needed, no doubt.

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