Some commentators deny that recent events at the Beeb constitute a crisis. The fact that these events call into question the organisation’s leadership and governance models, some of its key decision-making processes, not to mention the devastating impact on both George Entwistle and Lord McAlpine (among others), in my view puts it squarely into the crisis box.
Other commentators appear to agree.
Andrew Gilligan was swift in his condemnation in his article for The Telegraph on 25th October entitled Whether it’s the Hutton Report or Jimmy Savile, the BBC is hopeless in a crisis. Gilligan is no neutral onlooker in this story. An ex-BBC correspondent, Gilligan was central to a previous BBC crisis in 2003 when he claimed on Radio 4’s Today Programme that a British government briefing paper on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction (the September Dossier) had been ‘sexed up’. This ultimately resulted in both Gilligan’s and the Director General’s at the time (Greg Dyke) resignations following a description of Dyke’s approach to checking news stories as “defective” in the Hutton Report. Gilligan’s summary of this year’s BBC debacle cites management capability in a crisis as the key cause: “… the almost limitless capacity for self-harm of the BBC’s own management. Individually, BBC managers are intelligent, rational, fair and far-sighted. Collectively, they are foolish, panicky, unjust and inept. Strategically, BBC managers are rather successful. I know no other British state institution that has adapted so well to changing times. Tactically, in any crisis, they are all over the place.”
One of the key questions that needs to be addressed is whether the role of Director General become unreasonably large in scope? The role was described recently in the FT as both “CEO of an organisation of 23,000, plus Editor-in-Chief of one of the largest news-gathering operations on the planet” with the point being made that “…there’s not a lot of people who can actually do that job.”
Pressure on the BBC to cut costs led to an announcement in January that its pay bill for senior managers had dropped by £21million over 18 months, with headcount down by 25%. The article went on to say “The reduction in pay was helped by the departure of several high profile members of staff, such as deputy director general Mark Byford and marketing director Sharon Baylay.” This sounds like a step in the right direction until you read some of the contemporary reports issued at the time of Mark Byford’s departure who was described as “…bringing a moral sense to everything he did” Steve Hewlett, The Guardian, an “ability to rise above his own interests” and “the glue that held the BBC together”.
With Byford’s departure the role of Deputy Director General was axed. This might explain, in part, why George Entwistle appeared as such an isolated and, frankly, incompetent figure when questioned by John Humphreys about his knowledge of the Newsnight investigation which wrongly accused a senior Conservative figure of child abuse. The BBC’s Director of Communications Paul Mylrea was one of a number of senior executives to be removed from the BBC’s management board when Entwistle took charge in September 2012 and PRWeek reported a BBC source saying that the BBC’s communications unit was given a back seat role during the Savile crisis, with Entwistle placing his focus on procedures and handling lawyers. Another gap in their arsenal was created by the departure in mid 2010 of the highly experienced Tina Stowell after 18 months in the role of Head of Corporate Affairs. Instead of replacing Stowell, the existing Head of Public Affairs was promoted to cover both roles.
The special hour long The Media Show on 14th November that took an in-depth look into how the BBC has got it so wrong over recent months. One of the questions they were asking was who now at the BBC is monitoring external media and advising the DG of any issues. Based on George Entwistle’s performance on The Today programme on 10th November, the answer is “Nobody”.
For everyone who, despite the on-going political wrangling surrounding its funding, sees the BBC as a reason to be proud to be British, we can only hope that it will emerge from the crisis stronger and better equipped to tackle the communication challenges of today’s news reporting business environment.