The BBC: judgment suspended

By Martin Vogel

New Broadcasting House, London
New Broadcasting House, London

As a former BBC hand, I wonder whether people inside the BBC appreciate just how out of control it looks to the outside world? The failures at Newsnight over its mistaken (semi-) identification of Lord McAlpine as a paedophile have revealed what should have been unimaginable lapses in basic journalistic protocol. The director-general’s subsequent resignation with a £450,000 pay-off looked like the BBC Trust had lost the plot. And BBC News is running out of seasoned hands as executives keep falling in the line of fire. But the message from the BBC is “steady as she goes.”

“I don’t think it’s chaos,” said Tim Davie, taking over as Acting Director-General, “Most of our output is in fine form out there. The BBC’s been back from these crises before.”

The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, reached a similiar conclusion:

“What I do not detect … is any threat to the existence or status of the BBC – unlike previous rows which pitted governments against the Corporation.”

Nick Robinson’s analysis seems correct in that the Government appears keen, for the moment, to avoid turning the drama into a political row.  But he was referring to the big rows with government in the BBC’s history which culminated with the Hutton inquiry in 2003.  Since then, we have had:

The phone-in scandal, 2007
Queengate, 2007
Sachsgate, 2008
Pageantgate, 2012
The Savile scandal, 2012
McAlpine, 2012

There is a downside to the thought that the BBC is adept at bouncing back from crises. There have been quite a number in recent years, and the public is growing weary. A ComRes poll for the BBC found, apparently for the first time, more people saying they do not trust the BBC than do. This survey reflects only the impact of the Jimmy Savile scandal; it was undertaken before the debacle over Lord McAlpine.

With the exception of the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant, the incidents in the list above have in common a falling short of the standards of trust, accuracy and plain-dealing that the public expects of the BBC. An aggravating factor in the misleading trailer for A Year with the Queen, the Ross/Brand scandal and the recent Newsnight case was questionable editorial supervision of externally-produced content.

These very specific failures are set against a more general perception of BBC decline. One charge sheet along these lines is offered by the Telegraph blogger, Dan Hodges. One may quibble with his specific examples of strengths and weaknesses in the BBC’s output. But there is recognisable truth in his assertion that in many genres the BBC is not the global broadcast leader it once was or still thinks itself to be:

“For years the BBC has faced one overarching threat to its reputation – the BBC’s reputation. The culture within the BBC is essentially this: ‘What we do is the best, simply because we are the BBC and we are doing it’. But the fact is that in many areas the BBC is no longer the broadcasting gold standard, and hasn’t been for many years.”

The self-regard that Hodges identifies is underwritten by the licence fee. Whatever the arguments for it, the very fact that the BBC is funded by a guaranteed stream of public money causes insiders to equate their existence with the public good, consciously or not. If you think about, it would be extremely hard not to be influenced in this way. But, as Janan Ganesh points out in the FT, this has the unfortunate effect that the BBC tends to defend “every aspect of its output as strictly necessary and tenaciously guards a licence fee designed for another age.”

If this is hard-wired into the BBC’s DNA, it’s fair to point out that it does make sustained attempts to counter its nature. The Birt era was characterised by many such initiatives. And it was precisely to take more conscious account of its privileged position as the recipient of some £3.6 billion pounds of licence fee funds that the BBC developed its public value framework. This was intended to generate a a more self-critical appreciation inside the BBC of the distinction between its output and outcomes so as to be more confident about which of its activities support the public good.

The recent incidents raise questions about the extent to which the BBC is honestly guided by its public purposes. But there is a prior question about the attention of management. For all the talk of management bloat and the BBC’s massive size, the trend has been that while it expanded its footprint in terms of services the BBC has actually reduced in size in terms of staff numbers. The chain of command from the editor of Newsnight to the Director-General – four steps – is comparable to the chain in a newspaper from a section editor to the chief executive. But there are two significant differences: the BBC’s chief executive is also, nominally, editor-in-chief; and with each step up the hierarchy, the span of command is exponentially greater than in other media organisations.

George Entwistle disclosed an unacknowledged truth in his Today interview when he said, “I need to explain that there are an awful lot of pieces of journalism going on around the BBC which do not get referred to the editor-in-chief.” Even leaving aside the DG, many managers in the BBC are formally responsible for a greater volume of output than they can realistically hope to supervise to the standards we expect of the BBC as a public service. The tendency is to focus attention on the most high profile programmes with the result – as the phone-in scandals and the Ross/Brand affair demonstrated – that apparently insignificant output can sometimes drag the BBC’s reputation through the mire. But, as the recent Newsnight failures have highlighted, there is also potential for confused management even with regard to the most important programmes, of which Newsnight was surely one.

All of that said, it remains perplexing that the editorial culture could have allowed through a highly contentious investigation which had evaded some of the most elementary of journalistic checks – such as corroborating the claims of your witness, or approaching the subject accused for comment. It remains perplexing that the BBC somehow contrived to celebrate the life of a presenter that another part of the organisation had discovered to be a paedophile. I have a theory that the Corporation has suffered a gradual collapse of judgment as it has responded to successive crises by instituting new compliance procedures which corral people into a box-ticking mentality. The scale of the Corporation makes this seem like a practicable way to draw lessons from disasters. But it has the impact of infantilising intelligent and capable staff.

Lord Patten, the BBC Trust Chairman, has concluded that the recent incidents highlight the need for a “radical, structural overhaul”. But any shake-up needs to be more than a shifting of bodies for form’s sake. The BBC needs to establish a structure that realistically serves its public purposes. The broadcast executive, David Elstein, has proposed breaking up the BBC into smaller, more manageable structures; the FT’s Janan Ganesh says it needs to prune its sprawling empire. Such proposals are considered hostile inside the BBC (where there’s more sympathy to reverting to the model of a deputy director-general who relieves the DG of day-to-day editorial responsibility). But they do have the merit, in my view, of envisaging structures in which management attention might be less attenuated and in which there might therefore be space for better judgment.

As Robert Greenleaf reminds us, judgment is an ethical capacity. The BBC’s recent failures are ethical failures. That’s why the public is losing patience. The BBC needs to end its bouncing back or the next crisis may be terminal.

Update 16 November 2012: My former colleagues feel understandably defensive about the BBC.  I’ve posted further thoughts acknowledging that there is much to value in the what the BBC does.

Image courtesy Graham Holliday.