Sunday, November 11, 2012

The BBC: Turning A Crisis Into A Catastrophe

[The director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle, has resigned after a chaotic 54 days.]

Poor George. Such a charming, gentle man. 

I met him a few times, when he was head of Current Affairs at the BBC and I was pitching a television series about how to improve the rate of prisoner reoffending. What I proposed was so radical and dangerous (I wanted to move young prisoners to a “half-way house”, set them up in business, then film how they got on) that I doubted he would consider it. 

George heard the pitch, then said, in quiet, measured tones: “It’s exactly the sort of series the BBC should be doing right now”.

George Entwistle was a man with a real instinct for public service, for what the BBC should be all about. But although he was a “Head of”, he had no real power. There were layers of “controllers” and “directors” above him, who quickly rejected our good idea (“Too dark”, “no one cares about prisoners”). 

That was five years ago. Since then, he rose quickly to the surface of the stagnant BBC lake as others were retired, poached or cast out. Sadly, once at the top, a lone head gasping in the public spotlight, without “controllers” or “directors” to tell him what to do, he simply couldn’t cope and was hung out to dry. 

Did the BBC appoint the wrong man?
He will be forever known as Incurious George: the man disinterested when first told about the Savile investigation; who missed the national publicity for the Newsnight exposé, and even the programme itself; the one man in the BBC who doesn’t read the Guardian. My colleague Keith Hann crisply tweeted that CBeebies’ Mr Tumble would have made a more credible director-general. 

George was no public speaker, no creative powerhouse, no ruthless manager. He was a nice man, with sound editorial values, and an understanding of public service. Just the sort of person the BBC needs at times like this, but not at its head. So why hasn’t the man responsible for such a disastrous appointment, Lord Patten, bowed his head and walked? What a mess. 

Meanwhile, the lack of journalistic process appears breathtaking. I currently work on Channel 4’s flagship series, Dispatches. Like all investigative programmes, it is produced using established, strict editorial guidelines. Before a frame is shot, an “editorial specification” sets out what the film is trying to achieve. At every stage of production, a draft script containing a transcript of each interview, as well as the commentary, is pored over by lawyers, whose job is to question each assertion, not just for libel, but also for fairness. Who is making the accusation and why? What credibility do they have? What corroborative evidence is there? Every question has to be satisfied, or the assertion is removed. Even then, the script contains blank pages, reserved for what is called the “Right to Reply”. Each person or organisation under investigation is allowed an interview or a statement, which is broadcast, even if it directly contradicts the evidence in the programme. 

Once you understand this process, you can immediately see Newsnight’s disastrous failings. Noone showed Steve Messham a picture of Lord McAlpine and asked him to identify the person who abused him; there was no corroboration; and most significantly, because the accused could easily be identified from his description (and was, almost immediately, via Twitter), McAlpine wasn’t given his “right to reply”. 

This is basic, school of journalism stuff. And George Entwistle and I both went to the same school of journalism: the BBC. 

George won’t be the only scalp. The programme’s acting editor, the Head of News who authorized transmission, the news “director” who presided over such a lax system, the "Editorial Policy" team whose systems failed, and the lawyer who allowed the programme to go on air – all should be removed and retrained, or pensioned off. 

But so should the system itself, this top-heavy, self-perpetuating, smug structure, that stifles creativity and rewards the bland and the bureaucrats. And so should the BBC Trust, which has just demonstrated its own worthlessness. If the BBC Trust's primary purpose is to appoint a director-general, and the board voted unanimously for Mr Tumble, that board should go.

Until someone from outside grasps the organisation, tears it up, and starts again, the BBC will never regain the one thing that matters: the trust of the people who fund it. 

[Postscript:  This morning the BBC Trust awarded George Entwistle a payoff equivalent to a full year's salary:  around £450,000.  That's £8,300 for each day of service.  Predictably the British press (and the usual anti-BBC MPs) are up in arms.  I wonder if, in addition, he will receive his full BBC pension, which would normally be based on his "final salary"?  I estimate that would bring him around £200,000 a year for life.  Not-so-poor George, then.]

1 comment:

Debbie said...

Good article. And sad that the BBC has got to this stage. But then so many good people have left