Entertainment & Arts

BBC digital 'catastrophe' criticised

BBC Broadcasting House
Image caption A former senior BBC technologist wrote to the BBC Trust last year to alert them to the problems

A failed BBC IT project that was scrapped at a cost of £100m was a "complete catastrophe", a member of the BBC Trust has admitted.

The Digital Media Initiative (DMI), a new production tool, was abandoned last month after five years in development.

BBC Trustee Anthony Fry said it was "extraordinarily worrying".

"This is, on a personal level, probably the most seriously embarrassing thing I've ever seen," he told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

DMI was intended to transform the way TV and radio producers used and shared video and audio material.

The contract was awarded to technology company Siemens in 2008 but its development was taken over by the BBC two years later.

Its eventual cancellation came despite reassurances from the BBC to the committee and the National Audit Office in 2011.

In February 2011, then BBC director general Mark Thompson told the committee: "There are many programmes that are already being made with DMI, and some have gone to air and are going to air with DMI already working."

The same month, National Audit Office reported that the project had "progressed well" since being taken back in house.

But speaking at a hearing of the committee in Salford on Monday, Mr Fry said: "On the back of the successful delivery of iPlayer, and on the back of what the BBC was hoping to achieve and did achieve successfully in terms of the delivery of the Olympics, I think there was a sort of feeling that the BBC could walk on water.

"There was not enough technological expertise around either the Trust table, or the executive board table, to actually go ahead on something of this scale and complexity."

It has emerged that a former senior BBC member of staff wrote to the BBC Trust last year to alert them to the problems.

Bill Garrett, who was a principal technologist, sent a letter warning that the Trust, the government and the committee "may have been misled about the true performance of the DMI since it was taken in house", according to the committee's chair Margaret Hodge.

On Monday, Mrs Hodge said: "The thing that really shook me when I looked at these letters over the weekend was that we were told one thing.

"We were told that there were bits of this system that were working, that you were using them. That wasn't true. The just wasn't true."

BBC North director Peter Salmon told the committee that some limited parts of the system had been operational. Mrs Hodge said she would summon Mr Thompson to reappear before the committee next month.

Committee member Ian Swales MP suggested that the BBC management had either been negligent or been lied to about the progress by others in the corporation.

"What you're not doing is filling us with confidence that you've got mechanisms in place that you're going to avoid this sort of thing happening again," he told Mr Fry.

In a statement, Mr Thompson, who is now chief executive of the New York Times, said: "When I appeared in front of the PAC... I answered all of the questions from committee members honestly and in good faith.

"I did so on the basis of information provided to me at the time by the BBC executives responsible for delivering the project."

An independent report into what went wrong is being conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and is expected to be completed by September, Mr Fry said.

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