Drama turns to crisis as BBC faces loss of public trust
MEDIA & MARKETING:Never having been inside either White City or New Broadcasting House, I’m confused as to whether managers at the BBC are “biddable” time-servers, as Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman claims, or “pinheaded weasels” who “should have choked on their abacuses”, as per axed radio host Danny Baker.
Either way, its boss class has been getting it in its “bloated” neck ever since the Savile fiasco devolved into the Savile-McAlpine farce, where parallel chains of command and mangled “lines of responsibility” allowed a reputation-destroying story to air. So are media managers worse than any other kind? Or, to borrow the acronym used by journalist John Rentoul, is that simply another QTWTAIN (Question To Which The Answer is No) of which headline writers are so fond?
Pundits, politicians and employees have speculated as to whether the cause of the shambles that led to the resignation of BBC director general George Entwistle lie in having too many managers, not enough managers or simply the wrong managers. A fourth explanation, offered by BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten, is that the organisation is “at once over-managed and under-managed”. Indeed, promoting the right people and the correct volume of them is useless if the management structures are skew-whiff.
The dual role of director general as both chief executive and editor-in-chief is at the heart of this structural debate – how can one individual reasonably be held accountable for every second of the BBC’s output? When Lesley Douglas, former controller of BBC Radio 2, said she was ultimately to blame for the “Sachsgate” hoo-ha and left on the basis it had happened on her “watch”, it did seem unfair.
In Entwistle’s case, it’s a moot point. He didn’t resign on this principle, notwithstanding what Patten, the man who hired him, tried to imply. He quit because it had become sadly apparent that he couldn’t lead a moth to light.
I’m not sure I believe someone earning £450,000 a year qualifies for tags like “scapegoat” or “fall guy”, but “Incurious George” had his friends, notably Paxman, who suggested he had been brought low by “cowards and incompetents”, presumably hiding in some watercooler-blessed management layer beneath.
The ascent of media man, it has been argued, is a triumph of careerism over effectiveness – the higher the climb, the more likely it is that damaging survivalist tendencies will kick in during a crisis. Entwistle, by many accounts, was once a talented editor, a feat that usually requires some management skills. By the time he became BBC head of vision, however, he was happy to let explosive information such as the fact Newsnight was investigating Jimmy Savile wash over him during a “busy lunch” without doing anything as drastic as asking ,“Oh yes, what for?”
It’s ridiculous to expect every botch by foot soldiers to lead to the beheading of the king. But human error rarely takes place in a vacuum. Even with Sachsgate, it was possible to situate the broadcast of the offensive prank phone message in an institutional context – specifically, the way presenters were permitted to make shows using their own production companies.
Meanwhile, the dangers of having “too many managers” seem more vague than those of having too few, over-stretched ones – it can boil down to suspicions that the number of people at a meeting is inversely proportional to the chances that action will be taken on foot of it. “Room meat” is the term used in In the Loop for also-rans recruited as bums-on-seats to inflate a summit’s sense of grandeur. Management gurus, meanwhile, espouse the efficiency of “leaner” organisations.
What we do know is that on the scale of inaction where zero is a Skype two-way between employer and over-compensating teleworker, and 10 is a UN climate change conference, the BBC’s response to Newsnight’s Savile investigation clocked in at 11. Whose responsibility was it to ensure that the broadcaster’s good name did not become synonymous with a culture that fostered abuse and perhaps even covered it up? No manager wanted that to be part of his or her job title.
“The BBC was much more efficiently run in the days when it sheltered paedophiles. Today, it’s a shambles,” tweeted the satirist Jeremy Hardy this week, neatly drawing attention back to the original abuse scandal.
The crazy journalistic mistakes made in the broadcast of Newsnight’s McAlpine report might seem like more serious errors than Newsnight’s original non-running of the Savile story and the as yet unexplained failure to pursue the investigation into the presenter. It is this earlier sequence of events that may yet put a greater dent in public trust in the BBC.