BBC pays a high price for 'Newsnight' gamble

Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:For 80 years, Broadcasting House on London’s Portland Place has been home to BBC radio. Restored six years ago, the Grade II-listed building has more recently received a £1 billion extension, creating some of the world’s most modern television studios.

From next year, the extension – a huge structure wrapped around the original building – will be home to 6,000 staff in a migration that began earlier this year and has posed major logistical headaches.

Few organisations would consider moving thousands of staff to a new, high- tech headquarters while implementing a 20 per cent cut in spending, thousands of redundancies and, all the while, keeping an existing 24/7 operation running.

The BBC2 programme Newsnight moved there recently. Some in the BBC – perhaps hysterically, perhaps not – fear Portland Place will not be the new home of one of the broadcaster’s flagship programmes but rather its tomb.

The crisis that has affected Newsnight, and now all of the BBC, would be hard to write as fiction. The programme had information from alleged victims about child abuse committed by broadcaster Jimmy Savile and decided not to air it.

Senior management gave different reasons for their actions in the matter before the programme’s editor, Peter Rippon, “stood aside”, in BBC parlance. Two inquiries, which have yet to report, were then set up.

Newsnight’s gamble

Faced with such a crisis, most organisations would bed down and nurse wounds. Instead, Newsnight gambled everything by running a story – later shown to be false – that a former senior Conservative had abused children at a north Wales care home.

The allegations made by victim Steve Messham were brought to Newsnight by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Angus Stickler, a former BBC journalist who had a good reputation when he was at the corporation.

Instead of taking the story in-house, Newsnight contracted it to Stickler and the BIJ, who hired their own producer and produced the report, which the BIJ’s head, Iain Overton, promoted in a tweet hours before broadcast.

Extraordinarily, the allegations were never put to the man Stickler believed was an abuser, former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine, who was not named in the Newsnight report but who was named by others online.

Equally, Messham’s background was not researched. Compensated for abuse suffered at the Bryn Estyn home outside Wrexham, he was, nevertheless, labelled an unreliable witness by an inquiry a decade ago.

The Savile crisis had cost Rippon his job. The “lack of clarity” about who was responsible for what in Newsnight after he had stood down contributed to the second blunder, according to an emergency review by a BBC executive.

The second crisis, coupled with his extraordinary inability to communicate, cost George Entwistle – a highly respected and much-liked individual in the BBC – his job as director general after 54 days in the post.

Entwistle went like a lamb to the slaughter during his BBC Radio 4 Today encounter with John Humphrys last Saturday: he had not known about the second Newsnight programme beforehand; and he had found out it was wrong only when Messham said last Friday he had mistakenly identified McAlpine as an abuser. Entwistle had not seen Friday’s Guardian front-page report flagging doubts about Messham’s story.

Entwistle’s career was over before he had left the Today studio – unfairly, in the view of some, including veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby. However, his fall was inevitable given the current maelstrom.

Sclerotic organisation

On taking over in September, ironically, he had warned that the sclerotic organisational structure in the BBC – which has expanded hugely in scope over the last decade or so – was unsustainable and had to change. In the end that structure brought him down.

Entwistle had no deputy director general riding shotgun for him, unlike his predecessor, Mark Thompson, who had the services of Mark Byford.

Given that it is the BBC, it was inevitable there would be mixed opinions about Byford. In the words of the Guardian, it was difficult to see who else would pay him £500,000 a year. In the view of others, however, he kept a tuned ear out for trouble.

Whatever one’s views of the role performed by Byford, who stepped down last year after 32 years at the BBC, it is clear Entwistle’s successor will need some assistance: as currently structured the job of director general, incorporating the role of editor-in-chief, is too big for one individual.

Two more executives, Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell, stood aside yesterday, clearly reluctantly, and BBC chairman Lord Patten has made it plain that more heads will roll before the crisis ends.

Internal communication failures

For all its deserved reputation as a communicator, the BBC is appallingly bad at internal communication. Different sections are jealously guarded empires where information is shared on a need-to-know basis and few are seen to need to know.

Petty rivalries abound and enmities live seemingly forever. The ambitious are careful about what they say and they do nothing to challenge the consensus lest their career dreams are ground into the dust.

Meetings attract casts of dozens and agenda items are dealt with in minutes. Critics say no one speaks too loudly, lest they attract the ire of the boss.

For its enemies – Associated Newspapers (which published the Daily Mail), News International and the Telegraph Media Group – the BBC’s crisis is a godsend. But while its enemies may exploit the corporation’s woes, they did not cause them – a fact too many in the BBC seem to want to forget.

With its reputation bruised and its budgets tighter than before, the BBC faces a future different from the past. “The problem is not structures: it is that the wrong people have been promoted,” one source told The Irish Times yesterday.


MARK HENNESSYis London editor

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