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‘Scapegoated’ BBC tech boss calls foul, kicks off unfair sacking tribunal

CTO suspended amid £125m DMI teardown hits back at broadcaster

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The BBC’s former technology chief John Linwood claims he was made a scapegoat for the collapse of the Digital Media Initiative – the corporation’s £125m media sharing and archiving project that was axed a year ago with nothing to show for it.

Linwood was placed on gardening leave (on full £287,000 pa pay) as the project was put out of its misery, and is now pursuing the broadcaster for unfair dismissal.

He may have a point. The Digital Media Initiative (DMI) ran for six years, initially by Siemens under contract before it was taken in-house at the BBC – and later scrapped by the corporation's trust.

To say it was a major project within the broadcaster is an understatement, yet the only head to roll so far has been Linwood’s.

The DMI inquest turned into a very British circular firing squad – with everyone blaming everyone else. The BBC Trust said it was not kept up to date on the digi-shambles by executives, who for their part claimed they weren’t kept up to date by their own management teams and, in any case, the BBC Trust apparently didn’t ask for progress reports.

According to The Guardian on Tuesday, Linwood has claimed he was told he could resign or face dismissal from disciplinary action just 10 days before the abandonment of DMI was formally announced by the BBC Director-General Tony Hall.

Linwood will call former BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thomson as a witness in his employment tribunal, which opened this week. Linwood alleges he was unfairly sacked.

"He has been made a scapegoat for the BBC's decision to scrap its Digital Media Initiative," wrote Stuart Ritchie QC, representing Linwood, in a submission to the tribunal panel in central London.

"The heat has thereby been taken off everyone else who might have been subject of questions as to why the DMI project is not proceeding and difficult questions have thereby been avoided."

According to reports, the BBC, in its initial argument submitted to the tribunal, claimed: "[Linwood] had been responsible for £94m of expenditure which had little value to the BBC and he had continued to fail to take any responsibility for the failure of DMI in full or in part."

Leaving aside the issue of Linwood’s part in the DMI fiasco, it’s extraordinary no one else has carried the can for the prestigious project – which was one of the BBC’s seven strategic untouchables alongside the relocation of staff and studios to Salford.

In January this year, the UK's National Audit Office published the results of a postmortem examination that revealed nobody was really in charge of DMI – so nobody took the blame.

Yet three bodies – the BBC finance committee, the BBC executive and the BBC Trust (nominally a watchdog that acts on behalf of licence-fee payers but is really the old BBC Board of Governors with limited powers and a W1A-ish politically correct makeover) – all kept the DMI rolling along the tracks in 2010 despite warnings it was going nowhere. Between early 2011 and mid-2012 nobody enquired as to how it was doing, and on it went until it was canned in May 2013.

Amazingly, while picking through the aftermath of the DMI wreckage in December 2013, the National Audit Office was not given access to an early independent assessment of the initiative, carried out by Accenture in 2010, because the BBC refused to let the government watchdog see it.

If future digi-shambles are to be avoided before they clock up nine-figure sums, perhaps the BBC ought to be less Soviet and more transparent. The tribunal continues. ®

Bootnotes

BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten last night announced he has stepped down from the oversight panel for health reasons after three years in the top role.

And that assessment in 2010 is not to be confused with a technical review, carried out in 2013 by Accenture, which the BBC published on the same day the audit office published its final report on 28 January, 2014.

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