(If you haven’t heard what’s going on at the BFI, then BFIwatch, a blog set up by BFI author Pam Cook, which has collated all the media and public documents, is a good place to start. It’s at http://bfiwatch.blogspot.com/ and it’s updated regularly.)
A lot of lip service is paid to the people who make the BFI run from day-to-day: publishing books, videos and educational materials, looking after the archive, putting on events, marketing those events, or making sure the whole show runs smoothly and everyone gets paid on time. But they’re not often called on to add their voices to the letters to the Guardian, blogs, or academic mailing lists. Which is a shame, because they’re the people who keep the show on the road in the first place. So as former non-heads of department, non-senior academics and non-cultural heavyweights, we felt the need to add our voice and point of view to the discussion.
We don’t have a big list of what the ‘problems’ of the BFI are. In our view, two simple factors are responsible for the dire crisis the BFI now finds itself facing: Incompetence, and cowardice.
Firstly, incompetence. The activities currently at most serious risk at the BFI are not at risk because they’re ‘unsustainable’, ‘uneconomic’ or even vaguely not part of the ‘core’ of what the BFI does. All these activities are capable of covering their own costs even before they add to the richness and diversity of film culture and education. They’re at risk because they’ve been mismanaged. They’ve been put into an ill-conceived ‘trading’ division, set unreasonably high financial targets, and reorganised by managers who don’t know the first thing about their operational activities. Now they’ve been hung out to dry on the line of budgetary deficit by senior managers who would clearly have a hard time organising the weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. While staff have worked hard to meet their insane targets, it’s been to no avail: their budgets are produced as objective ‘truth’ of their failure. This is unacceptable.
Secondly, cowardice. The BFI’s senior management are afraid of what the BFI does. It’s all a bit too complicated and difficult fitting all the activities of the BFI and their wonderful interrelated synergies (the library produces programme notes for the NFT; the NFT add filmographic data to the BFI’s databases, that data gets used by both the archive and screenonline; screenonline writers go on to produce work for BFI publishing) into a ‘core’ mission statement. They don’t love film culture, they love the appearance of sophistication and importance that their association with film culture gives them. Those who sat in the public gallery of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee and watched Alan Parker and John Woodward unashamedly hold their hands out for yet more of the taxpayers’ pound, only to be followed by Anthony Minghella and Amanda Nevill’s craven promises that they would deliver ‘better value for money’ were astounded by their cowardice. We remain astounded by their unwillingness and inability to fight for a fairer bite of the cherry for one the nation’s most important cultural heritage organisations. It seems clear to us what the problem is and where the blame lies. Anthony Minghella is due to step down as chair of the governors soon. He should go now, and he should take Amanda Nevill with him.
The recipients of other letters have been prevailed upon to write letters of protest to Minghella, Nevill and the BFI’s board of governors. We don’t hold out much hope on this score: they’re the people who got the BFI into this mess in the first place. However it is still important to let them know what you think and to encourage members of the governing body to look more closely at how the BFI has been (mis)managed. So please, write to Amanda and Anthony and the BFI governors (www.bfi.org.uk/about/people/governors/), to the DCMS and to the Film Council.
But more importantly also write to the papers, post notices in online communities you belong to, raise the issue in meetings of your unions and professional associations, tell other former colleagues about it (and pass this letter on too if you wish). Lend your support to any campaigns that emerge from the BFI staff. Make a fuss, because the more noise is made, the greater the chances are of stopping these plans.