As George Entwhistle appears before MPs, the BBC must learn lessons from a crisis of its own making

There were errors and misjudgements of varying size, and unacceptable passivity. But the idea that this was something more sinister just doesn't stand up

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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. Step away from the frenzy and the allegation does not stand up to a moment’s reflection.

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 somewhat reassuring if they were. Almost certainly there was no such blindly deranged fan club at the top of the BBC.

Muddled

What actually appears to have happened was muddled rather than sinister. Probably the sequence went along these lines. The Newsnight editor was ready and keen to broadcast the report. He informed his senior managers who warned him, justifiably, 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 very 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 were evidently alert to the magnitude of the story and yet 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 one senior manager and another 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.

In other words, senior managers were right to warn of the need for the investigation to be robust, the Newsnight editor was wrong to scrap it altogether. Senior managers should have been alert to the fact that some excellent Newsnight journalists were on to something sensational but did not bother contacting them, relying on short messages from other senior managers or the programme’s editor, a flawed pattern that was also followed after David Kelly’s suicide, when senior managers spent too much time speaking to each other rather than to the key figures involved.

In the case of the Savile investigation, the misjudgements and examples of managerial complacency were not on a scale to justify the original frenzy that erupted three weeks ago, one partly fuelled by newspapers hostile to the BBC and fuming about the Leveson Inquiry. But in response, the BBC management, in its many manifestations, panicked as it often does when faced with even minor criticisms from newspapers.

This is partly a story about the relationship between BBC managers and the newspapers. Newspapers, even those sympathetic to the BBC, do not understand the way the Corporation works, or fails to work. Sometimes BBC managers are disproportionately flattered in newspapers, portrayed as mighty figures in the media when in reality they run empires so huge or ill-defined that they wield little day-to-day control over the output.

Frightened

But also as a result of this misunderstanding someone with the grand title, Head of Vision, can get blamed in newspapers for the BBC’s misjudged coverage of the Diamond Jubilee when he would not have been directly involved. Similarly, the Head of News is targeted for the failure of Newsnight to investigate Savile when probably the investigation was a distant speck on a too-vast horizon. Conversely, BBC managers and their media advisers are so frightened of newspapers that they almost allow assertions on the front and inside pages to become the truth even if they are not.

In the panic that follows, mistakes are made. Some managers opt for silence, a silence that is misread as an admission of guilt. Too used to the comfort of operating in the dark, others make public statements that turn out to be inaccurate. Understandably, Newsnight journalists are further enraged when misleading statements are made. Although the public will not pay attention to the detail, it will note an institution in which extremely well-paid managers seem incapable of managing. Politicians have also taken note . The backdrop to this crisis, as with others, is the level of pay for managers who at times struggle to manage effectively.

What is alarming for fans of the BBC is that this crisis is not a one-off. Too quickly manageable events become unmanageable. I know well some of those involved in previous crises and this one. Most are decent and committed yet are trapped in a structure that treats them perhaps too well most of the time only to leave them dangerously exposed when external scrutiny suddenly 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 the introduction of clearer lines of managerial responsibility and accountability. This is a clarity that has wider application for public institutions – from the police to the civil service – in an era when light is being shone in previously dark places and when a cash-strapped public needs to know that organisations it funds are being efficiently managed.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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