14 February 2024

Some men see things as they are and ask "Why … change?" : 2003 : Neil Stock, Ofcom

 A colleague would arrive at my workplace some Mondays with evident cuts and bruises. A tragic case of domestic violence? No. He was a loyal fan of Millwall Football Club, a team characterised by its “historic association with football hooliganism” (Wikipedia). Did I overhear anyone comment that it might be considered inappropriate to work in a government quango when resembling the runner-up from five rounds with Mick McManus? No. Colleagues alleged that this young buck was untouchable because he held finance qualifications that his boss lacked, despite their requirement to legally sign off public accounts. That same boss was then promoted to personnel director, despite having demonstrated to me a similar skills deficit, and then to deputy chief executive of our organisation. Ho hum.

Relevant qualifications and experience appeared to be non-essential for appointment to the management class at The Radio Authority. If you possessed ‘the right stuff’, prior employment in a Norfolk chicken processing factory could prove appropriate for a job regulating Britain’s commercial radio industry. One woman in my small crowded office talked incessantly, inserting expletives into every other sentence. Did any colleague suggest this to be inappropriate behaviour, particularly when some of us were interrogating radio station managers by phone and recording our conversations? No. Once, an interviewee enquired if I was calling from home, having overheard swearing in our office. Er, no, I just work in a madhouse.

Arriving daily to cross the threshold of our office, I felt like one of those unsuspecting visitors knocking on the front door of ‘The Munsters’ home, only to be invited into a scary otherworld that was bafflingly grotesque. Why did I choose to stay there? Because it was the only job I had been offered after countless rejected applications during months of unemployment. And I knew that my private hell would end soon. In several months’ time, the government would be merging several small regulators, including ours, into one new huge one to which staff would be transferred en masse. Well, with the exception of our only two visible minority colleagues, one of whom was dumped in the new regulator’s basement call centre, the other who was told she would have to apply for advertised vacancies despite her lengthy loyal service to our organisation. Which decisionmaker in our midst did we suspect of having never torn up their dogeared ‘NF’ membership card?

In order to prepare us for employment in a modern state-of-the-art regulator, The Radio Authority’s workforce was sent to a government conference centre to watch our new leader, Stephen Carter, talk us through PowerPoint presentations promising us a bright new future. I left these events finally feeling ‘hope’, though some colleagues seemed to sense ‘tyranny’, preferring the security blanket of a dysfunctional abusive ‘family’ already tainted by a corruption scandal exposed on national television. Preferring paperwork to floppy discs, I suspect nobody in The Radio Authority had even needed to press the ‘PowerPoint’ function on their archaic desktop computers. Why should they bother?

Though I had never witnessed our department required to function as any kind of team, we were all sent on a ‘teambuilding’ awayday organised by one of those faceless global management consultancies. We were told to pull together to solve theoretical problems, to play childish games and express our feelings in ‘breakout’ groups. I was paired with a colleague from my office who admitted her early career objective was to work on ‘BBC Radio Four’s ‘Women’s Hour’ programme, though she had never sought training in radio production. My own ‘learning experience’ from that session was something I had observed before – our privately educated elite expect to succeed in their chosen shiny career without needing to put in any graft as practitioners.

I lacked acting abilities, having always volunteered to organise the sound for school plays, but at our awayday I was picked to roleplay a radio licence hopeful whose latest application had been refused, in dialogue with the officer who had turned me down. Having endured enough of that day’s preposterous exercises, I threw myself into this role, choosing to feign a nasal Northern accent and imitate a persistent applicant from Stoke who felt the Radio Authority was discriminating against him. My colleagues laughed loudly at my desperate attempts to win the argument against my posh counterpart. In fact, my performance was art imitating life. I had heard work colleagues often lampoon the speech of a licence applicant from Stoke, despite his experience in radio broadcasting. Naturally, my play-acting did not dent their snobbishness one iota.

I had not understood how convincing my role had been that day until, during The Radio Authority chairman’s monthly walkabouts round our office, he would greet me using the ‘Wayne’ name of the Stoke persona I had adopted … and neither was he being ironic or witty. I had been renamed. I corrected him each month, but he insisted on addressing me on the next occasion as ‘Wayne’. Though he transferred to the new regulator, the majority of our senior management either were not offered jobs there or decided to accept redundancy, I know not which. Given that some had never used a work computer, preferring to order underlings do the grunt work for them, it was difficult to imagine them integrating within a modern office environment.

Everyone in our department received an email requesting our thoughts on how the radio licence application process could be improved. It had been sent by our team deputy Neil Stock, who had surprisingly been promoted by somebody somewhere to lead the radio division within the new regulator a few months hence. I had lots of ‘thoughts’ on the subject so started banging them out on my desktop computer. I was 875 words into my spiel before suddenly halting, asking myself what the hell I was doing providing free insights from hard-bitten experience. Earlier in my working life, I had spent months writing a radio licence application. Stock had never. That application had won up against 39 competitors. I had started working in commercial radio two decades ago. Stock had never. I had launched a London commercial radio station that had attracted a million listeners per week within its first six months. Stock had never. Might he not be harvesting ideas from his ‘team’ to convince his new paymasters that he possessed some kind of grand plan?

This suspicion was confirmed when, not having initially responded to his request, Stock reminded me repeatedly that he still required my contribution. He knew I considered the present application system deficient in almost every aspect because I had told him as much in previous conversations. However, I had nothing to gain from assisting his meteoric rise through the regulatory ranks without commercial radio experience. As is evident from the raw stream of consciousness I wrote then and reproduce (uncorrected) here, my verdict on my employer’s licensing system was damning as a result of having watched it contribute to an increasingly disastrous commercial radio sector in Britain. But criticising The Radio Authority meant criticising my new boss, so I never replied.

Months later, we had moved to the modern office environment of Ofcom. At last, it felt as if I was living in the present century. However, I sat at my desk day after day doing nothing, sidelined by Stock. Eventually he invited me to join his sub-committee tasked with updating the paper licence application form, which seemed like continued attrition to divine my insights. We met a couple of times, during which I retained my counsel about the disastrous system, since it was evident that Stock contemplated only minor amendments rather than a full-blown overhaul. At the end of our final meeting, Stock concluded our discussions by announcing that the application form would remain exactly as it already was, with only the old logo on the front page to be replaced by ‘Ofcom’. I was still working in a madhouse!

One day, everyone in the radio section received an email from Stock requiring their presence at a team meeting, a novelty as no such meetings had occurred at The Radio Authority. We all filed into the glass-walled room in the middle of our floor, waiting to be addressed. I wrote a header in my notebook and expected to jot some bullet points, but what followed left me open-mouthed and unable to note a single word. The sole topic of discussion was these former Radio Authority employees’ refusal to update their working methods to support Ofcom’s modernisation plan. Everyone in the room who spoke supported this strategy. I said nothing as my jaw had already hit the ground. My colleagues were a rabble of anti-revolutionaries. They wanted nothing to change. They were working in Ofcom’s office, drawing salaries from Ofcom, using Ofcom’s resources to hold this meeting … but they wanted to pretend they were still working at The Radio Authority. It was bizarre!

I was reminded of the ‘Luddites’ I had studied for economic history: textile workers in Nottingham who, between 1811 and 1817, had opposed factory owners replacing their labour with machinery. The government had sent 12,000 troops to quell their destruction of new equipment and violence against mill owners, after passing ‘The Frame Breaking Act’ that had made “machine breaking” a capital crime. Two centuries later, I was in the midst of a middle-class penpusher uprising where their disobedience was probably limited to not clearing their desks of papers before sneaking out to catch an early train home. Instead of armed troops, the most violent official response might be a polite e-mail etiquette reminder.

I returned to my desk in a state of disbelief. I must have attended hundreds of meetings during my working life, but that was the first where the consensus was to refuse to adapt to twenty-first century working methods. It felt like ‘Back to The Flintstones’. They would have been happier NOT to have computer terminals on their desks and a fast internet connection. I seemed to be in a minority of one, surrounded in our open-plan office by a couple of dozen paid-up members of the ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Radio Regulation Reactionaries’. I was half-expecting a singsong of ‘Power to The People’ during our afternoon tea break.

I was SO disappointed. I had endured a miserable eighteen months’ employment at The Radio Authority, during which I had been shouted at repeatedly, told not to talk about ‘radio’, denied my yearend bonus and had failed my annual review on every criterion. Despite my successful track record in radio, I had been treated like a troublesome child. The only thing that had kept me arriving daily for work in Holborn was the hope that the situation at the merged regulator would prove different. Yet, within weeks of Ofcom’s launch, I was witnessing the same crazy behaviours that my colleagues had carried across the Thames with them to recreate their own private Transylvania. Like Harker, I needed to escape the clutches of these vampires if I were to retain my sanity. Could I tie together enough bedsheets?

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