Ex-BBC Director General Mark Thompson Apologises To Commons For DMI Blunder

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Former BBC director general Mark Thompson has publicly apologised for DMI’s £100m failure

Mark Thompson, the BBC’s former director general, apologised before the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Monday for the failure of the corporation’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI) at an estimated cost to licence-fee payers of £98.4m.

Thompson, who was director general from 2004 to September 2012 and is now chief executive of the New York Times Co., disagreed with former BBC chief technology officer John Linwood’s (pictured) claim that the technology developed under the DMI scheme could have been used with some further testing.

‘It failed’

“DMI was not a success, it failed as a project. It failed in a way that led to a loss of public money,” Thompson said during the near three-hour hearing.

John LinwoodPhoto by Mike GoldwaterHe said there was a “pronounced and a growing difference of opinion” between the team developing DMI and the business users over the technology, but said it was not a matter of “business obstinacy”.

“In my observation I thought great effort was made by the business, by colleagues within BBC Vision, BBC North and elsewhere to get DMI to work,” he said. “I know there were tensions but I don’t think in themselves they were the reason for the failure of the project.”

With regard to his 2011 testimony before the PAC that DMI was already up and running, Thompson said that that was a “faithful and accurate” account of what he was being told about the scheme at the time. He said he had understood the technology was being used in the production of programmes including The One Show.

Thompson pointed out that other large-scale technology undertakings during his tenure, such as iPlayer and the support of the 2012 Olympics, had been successful.

‘Lack of engagement’

DMI was scrapped in May of last year following a lengthy development process that began in 2008, and Linwood was sacked in July. He revealed in written evidence to the PAC ahead of the hearing that he is taking legal action against the BBC over the matter.

Under questioning by the PAC, Linwood pointed to a “lack of engagement” by senior managers as an element in the project’s failure. He said that while at the time he “believed” in DMI’s business case, he was only involved in the technology and not the business model. He also reiterated that be believes current director general Lord Hall wrote off far more of the project than was accurate.

For his part, Dominic Coles, the BBC’s current director of operations, reiterated the BBC’s position that the DMI had amounted to merely a “shocking waste of money”.

“I hoped that off the back of the Accenture report there would be parts (of DMI) that we could find value, but by the end of the review we didn’t find anything of enduring value,” he said.

Coles said that while it is true, as Linwood has indicated, that thousands of BBC employees have access to the Metadata Archive developed as part of DMI, only 163 people use it regularly because it is far slower than the BBC’s 40-year-old legacy system.

Coles added that the BBC is now looking to shift to digital technology via “definable separate projects” that can be delivered “with more certainty”.

‘Beyond parody’

Anthony Fry, a former BBC Trustee, said the Trust had made “mistakes” over DMI in granting “too much leeway”. However, he said the failure was not down to matters of governance, arguing that the Trust could only act based on the information it was provided.

PAC chair Margaret Hodge said the BBC’s handling of the project was “beond parody”.

“The BBC needs to learn from the mistakes it made and ensure that it never again spends such a huge amount of licence fee payers’ money with almost nothing to show for it,” Hodge said in a statement.

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) last week also concluded that the BBC was severely lacking in the implementation of DMI.

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