Steve Richards: A cock-up but not a conspiracy

Not for the first time the BBC turns a manageable drama into an unmanageable crisis. The original allegation that senior managers organised a cover-up over Jimmy Savile because they were planning to broadcast a hagiography was absurd, wrong and could have been addressed easily.

Were these senior managers members of the Jimmy Savile Fan Club, aching to keep the dead man's untainted celebrity alive? If not, would they favour broadcasting such a programme over an investigation into Savile's behaviour? Given their maladroit response to the saga, would they be capable of organising such a cover-up? It would be almost reassuring if they were. Almost certainly there was no such blindly deranged fan club at the top of the BBC.

What actually appears to have happened was muddled rather than sinister. Probably the sequence went along these lines. The Newsnight editor was keen to broadcast the report. His senior managers warned him that the report had to be robust as it would make many waves. Such a warning and lack of managerial enthusiasm can unnerve an editor. At the least it is likely to have been a factor when he made the call to drop it. Separately, the planned hagiographies were broadcast.

In this sequence of events there were several minor misjudgements and an excess of passivity from senior managers, but nothing as grave as a cover-up. Some senior managers lost interest in the investigation once the editor decided to scrap it. Others from departments not directly responsible for Newsnight were indifferent. A "10-second" conversation between two managers about the investigation did not do justice to the scale of the story, but nor is 10 seconds long enough to plan a cover-up.

The misjudgements were not on a scale to justify the frenzy that erupted, one partly fuelled by newspapers hostile to the BBC. But in response the BBC management panicked.

Newspapers, even those sympathetic to the BBC, do not understand the way the Corporation works, or fails to work. As a result someone with the grand title, Head of Vision, can get blamed for the BBC's misjudged coverage of the Diamond Jubilee when he would not have been directly involved. Although the public will not pay attention to the detail, they will note an institution in which extremely well paid bosses seem incapable of managing. Politicians have also taken note. What is alarming for BBC fans is that this crisis is not a one-off.

I know well some of those involved. Most are decent and committed yet are trapped in a structure that treats them too well most of the time only to leave them dangerously exposed when external scrutiny becomes intense.

Usually the BBC's response to crises is to create more layers of management, shaping the circumstances for the next disaster.

Its reaction to this one needs to be clearer lines of managerial responsibility and accountability.

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