Let me declare an interest. I worked for BBC News for five years until 2007 and I have watched the media storm around the organisation with sadness but not surprise. As a former BBC hack one of the most interesting things to emerge from the organisation’s horror show over the past few days is the gulf between senior management and the journalists and producers on the ground. Now of course, there is such a divide in every firm and organisation big or small across the UK but I think it’s particularly acute at the BBC.
Management structures are often described as byzantine and at the BBC this is no cliché. Managers in the main have incredibly poorly defined job descriptions and areas of responsibility – this breeds a culture of land-grabbing and building fiefdoms within the organisation. All too often it is not about producing the best programming but about protecting one’s fiefdom and perhaps grabbing a little bit of responsibility and power from a fellow manager.
Amongst this elite – and this is one point where the BBC’s sharpest critics do have a real point – there is overpay, with dozens of executives paid more than the Prime Minister and certainly more than they would earn in the private sector (although this was always used as an excuse by previous Director General’s). And when one of the senior executives does lose their job – normally this involves a slow erosion of their powerbase by a competing executive – they tend to walk away with an eye-wateringly high pay off and pension.
Contrast this with the reporters and producers – they tend not to be well paid, redundancy is a constant threat (I remember in one round of redundancy during my time at the BBC only a handful of managers departed while hundreds of reporters etc were shown the door) and they are pressed beneath a management system of nods and winks and competition blood-red in tooth and claw.
Those below soon get to know that they are expected to tow a certain line but that line is never quite clear until a perceived transgression is made; neither in fact is where the buck really stops and who is the line manager is. This engenders a culture of low level fear and professional arse-covering (witness the journalists producing precise email trails for the decision to pull the Savile piece).
Us and Them
No surprise, because post-Hutton Inquiry, senior managers have thrown the lower orders to the wolves. Remember the ridiculous case of the poor Blue Peter staffer fired by a senior manager following the exposure that a poll to change the name of a cat had been rigged and on a much bigger scale; or thousands of staff being uprooted in an expensive and facile move to Manchester. These were pure ‘Us and them’, but don’t even scratch the surface.
This management structure at the BBC matters when it came to Savile. There may well be no killer email in Mr Rippon’s inbox from a more senior manager but despite Mr Rippon’s denials I find it impossible to believe that the piece wasn’t pulled either on a nod and a wink from above or simply to carry favour.
The crisis engulfing the BBC isn’t due to poor journalistic practices – in fact the Newsnight reporters were exemplary – nor as one commentator put it “rule bound, strictly hierarchical” management (most BBC staffers wish things were that clear) – but instead it’s a reflection of a management living in a perpetual state of dark-age chaos.