This is like watching the collapse of a small totalitarian state, its dark secrets – previously known only to terrified inhabitants – being finally subjected to vivid light. Some of the more famous and eloquent inhabitants even dare to speak out as a regime implodes. The implosion was bound to happen at some point, as inevitable as the crisis that engulfed out-of-control newspapers the summer before last or the one that continues to challenge the banks.
The crisis is about the way the BBC is managed, about the layers of managers too detached from the daily output, some in conveniently ill-defined jobs and all on very high levels of pay. The lop-sided dynamic between managers and the rest was only sustainable because of an internal pretence that the army of executives was required to protect and speak for the BBC. The pretence was never believed by the rest of the staff, or by some managers, but understandably even top presenters were fearful of speaking out.
In spite of the fearful silence, the dynamic was already under threat, undermined by a level of executive pay that infuriated Labour and Tory ministers. When he was Chancellor, Gordon Brown told me that over-management and their pay was the single reason the BBC did not secure the more generous licence-fee settlement it sought. It is hard in such circumstances for senior managers to claim they are advancing the BBC’s cause. When Paxman, Dimbleby and Marr speak publicly of a bloated management, they reflect private conversations among presenters, reporters and editors that have been going on a long time.
Who's job is it?
When a management is bloated, there are no clear lines of responsibility and accountability. It was, of course, inexcusable that the former Director-General was about the only person in the country who did not know Newsnight was planning to broadcast allegations about a “top Tory from the 1980s” but there were many managers on six-figure salaries who might have alerted him to the potential dangers, or indeed alerted Newsnight. Most of them are, in reality, tiny cogs in a big machine that works perfectly well without them a lot of the time. In some cases, it would not have crossed their minds to rattle the machine. I am told that only the editor of Today, Ceri Thomas, bravely and sensibly challenged the management consensus the following Monday by suggesting that the Newsnight report was irresponsible.
These are human judgements. Like politics, journalism is more of an art than a science. Mistakes are made. Similar mistakes are made in newspapers now screaming for the near abolition of the BBC. In this case, the errors are symptoms of the crisis but not the cause. The editorial decisions that led to the most recent Newsnight explosion have no defence. Those that led to the halting of the earlier Savile allegations might well be defensible.
But this crisis goes deeper and wider. Here are the unanswered questions. Why was a blog from the Newsnight editor about the Savile saga allowed to be published with several errors? Why did it take so long for those errors to be corrected? Why did no one apparently ask what had happened to the Savile investigation after the postponement and urge that it be continued? Why did no one examine every second of what the Newsnight team had compiled on the Savile investigation? Why were there not urgent meetings between senior managers who knew that the BBC was planning to broadcast tributes to Savile? Why were there not a thousand managerial alarm bells ringing when it emerged that Newsnight was planning to wade into the same area again?
Involved but not responsible
The sequence of events is familiar. The day Andrew Gilligan reported that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell had sexed up intelligence against the wishes of senior intelligence officers, I bumped into Robin Cook. I assumed the famously anti-war Cook would be thrilled. But he was horrified.
Unlike senior BBC managers, he was used to being accountable and therefore had to be forensic. He had studied the transcripts, spoken to certain key individuals and had decided he could not use the reports to advance his case against the conflict. He explained to me in detail why some of what was being alleged could not be true. In contrast, the BBC’s senior managers rushed to defend “every word” of what had been broadcast without even consulting the reporter. Subsequently, the Hutton Inquiry published the email exchanges from within the BBC. They were astonishingly complacent, composed by many BBC managers – all of whom were involved but not responsible.
Now there are predictable calls – mainly from hostile newspapers and MPs who do not understand the BBC – for Chris Patten to stand down as Chair of the Trust. Patten is one of the few who appreciates the degree of change that is required. The media can get another scalp if it tries hard enough, but licence-fee payers would benefit more from the change that Patten seeks. Patten must stay in post.