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Do the BBC know what an entrepreneur actually is? – An open letter to Tony Hall

10 min read

11 March 2015

Earlier this week the BBC published a quiz for children on CBBC with questions and answers. The "right" answer in each case was to lie or cheat. Children who chose other answers were told they were "too nice to get to the top in business".

After increasingly fierce criticism from entrepreneur and children’s groups, the BBC eventually quietly removed the quiz – initially without explanation. When challenged by Business Zone reporter Chris Goodfellow they offered a telling justification for the content of the quiz, below, that revealed more about the BBC and it’s understanding and attitudes than it does about UK business or entrepreneurs.

The question isn’t whether the programme makers have been watching too much Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice – it’s whether, like it or not, we all are. Which prompts this open letter to Tony Hall, director general of the BBC.

Dear Mr Hall,

This is a very important, serious, question because, as has become increasingly clear over the last five years, the future of the UK rests on the creativity and character of our entrepreneurs and the mainstream, non-corporate SME sector.

I will not trouble you with all the stats (except to remind you that this is by far the biggest part of the UK economy). In total, 99 per cent of firms employ well over 80 per cent of the UK’s workers. But the fact is that non-Dragon entrepreneurs are the ones who are creating jobs, employing the vast majority of people and growing the economy. Contrary to popular myth the corporate sector is, of course, a net-destroyer of jobs year-on-year.

So the way entrepreneurs are portrayed in our culture, and the stories we tell our children about them, are crucial. Especially for the BBC – given the trust it is accorded and it’s unique place British life.

When I grew up in the 1960s no one had ever heard of an entrepreneur, but business-people were generally regarded as rather grubby and amoral. “You have to be don’t you, to get on” was a part of that thinking. That was a major barrier I personally had to surmount before I launched my first, highly successful, business back in 1989. 

By then public perception was starting to change but I still had to reassure friends, family and pretty much everyone around me that I hadn’t, in fact, “gone to the dark side”. That it was possible to do this without selling your soul – resorting to unethical, dirty tactics – to survive, let alone become successful. This was particularly difficult as I lacked a role model (or any kind of good-business stereotype) so I wasn’t 100 per cent sure of this myself at the outset. I’m far from alone. The whole of this current generation of entrepreneurs and business-owners have had to surmount a similar barrier.

Thankfully we’ve all moved on and we now, collectively, understand that not only do businesspeople play a vital role – but they’re not all just tawry “bread-heads”. Now, entrepreneurs are the ones who create the jobs and bring innovation to the economy (the shareholder-value driven model having driven this role largely out of the corporate sector long ago).

As a country we’re even starting to recognise social entrepreneurs and social enterprises, those who have such a mission without the specific label, and the powerful and crucial role they play in building a better society.

It’s the corporate sector that, having become predatory and semi-detached from society as a whole, insist on their “right” to shave as close as possible to the legal wind.

It was shocking to see such a terrible and outdated attitude to entrepreneurs embodied in a CBBC children’s quiz, under the BBC brand. More shocking still to have all those children who filled it in with any sense of a moral compass being told they were “too nice” to be entrepreneurs!

A BBC spokesperson said: “The quiz was intended to reflect a fictional character from the drama ‘Eve’. In the programme the character has a mischievous and deceptive nature and this was incorporated into the quiz outcomes. On reflection we accept that when taken out of context the quiz could be seen to be condoning immoral behaviour which was certainly not our intention.”

It’s not a lame excuse to say that these words were in the mouth of a character and the context of a story – it’s no excuse at all. It also shows no understanding of the importance of this mistake, und unveils a shocking misunderstanding within the BBC as a whole of who and what entrepreneurs are and the importance of the way we are portrayed. Not to mention the damage this particular quiz could have inflicted.

The US equivalent to Dragons’ Den is called Shark Tank. Here it’s not unknown for us to see the odd flash of a similar sort of fin as the BBC Dragons maul their latest prey.

Standing back, and given the BBCs lack of coverage of what anything other than corporate businesses are, we ought not to have been quite so surprised perhaps.

The vast majority of entrepreneurs are no Dragons – they look, behave and live much like the rest of society.

We’re far from perfect (aka human) but we, as a class, rely on our reputation. Because unlike the Dragons and corporates, no-one is forced to deal with us. We build and maintain good relationships with our suppliers, and would not tax and “farm” them for the privilege of dealing with us even if we could.

Perhaps the BBC’s programme makers (unlike Channel 4 who found a gem in Dave Fishwick) think that without the flash of fin, the Roller and the flashy glass city high-rise there’s no story? They’re wrong. There’s a huge mix, with stories, heroism and drama aplenty.

Entrepreneurship is not about pilfering, lying and cheating your way to the top. Especially not in the more open age of the internet and social media. It’s a choice – and never an easy one. It involves a huge commitment of time, life and lifestyle. There’s risk and practical, neck-on-the-line, self-belief (even on days when you’d rather be anywhere else). It involves keeping an open mind, building a team and working with others. It’s about thinking creatively every day, often on your feet, and is seven, not five or six, days a week.

So this small but important incident on CBBC sheds an important light on an important lack. In short the BBC is showing itself to be prejudiced, outdated and negligent on an issue that matters not just to the nations entrepreneurs, but to us all.

Not nearly enough has been done, admitted or said to put right this, comparatively small, wrong. But the big point, and the big issue is: what will the BBC do to review, correct and re-balance it’s attitude and coverage of this vital area. Or are you, as director general, content to allow news coverage of this vital and fascinating area to be represented by the entirely unrepresentative output at present – which is London and corporate centric at best and whose flagships are the reality tabloid formats of Rogue Traders, The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den?

Will you work with us entrepreneurs as you’ve started to work with others such as women in business, science and engineering to start to rebalance and ensure that young people and others are not misinformed and misled. Let’s give them the chance to see entrepreneurship as a valuable and honourable careers choice that can also be of great value to society?

We await your response with interest.

Yours sincerely,

Barry James

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