Does the BBC need all these reporters?

There is enough in Hutton to fill a book on the do's and don'ts of managing large organisations
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The Independent Online

Week one of the Hutton inquiry has produced a volume of evidence that, in the number of transcribed pages posted each evening on the internet, is as long as a sizeable book. Add all the supporting documents, including the vituperative correspondence between the BBC and 10 Downing Street, and we are looking at a tome that would compete in weight - not to speak of pace and compulsive detail - with Crime and Punishment. Four more weeks of this and we will have War and Peace twice over.

Most of these pages will be superfluous once Lord Hutton has published his findings. His ruling will determine how this inquiry is remembered. It would be a pity, however, if the small print of the testimony were never consulted again. For there is enough material already to fill a textbook on the do's and don'ts of organising and managing large organisations.

Day by day, we have heard senior executives and personnel managers all struggling to explain how their particular organisation works. Not how it is supposed to work, but how it actually works, in practice. The tale of the Ministry of Defence is especially illuminating. Dr Kelly entered the employ of the MoD as a microbiologist at the weapons research establishment, Porton Down, in the Eighties. When he died last month, he was an internationally recognised weapons specialist still, in theory, attached to Porton Down, or rather to the "agency" that took over responsibility for Porton Down in the early Nineties. The name of the agency, however, had changed again, as had its structure. Its precise relationship to the Ministry of Defence - in terms of funding, staff grades and salaries - was never thoroughly clarified.

Dr Kelly, meanwhile, found himself answering to the MoD proper, having been seconded back to the mother organisation because of his work on chemical and biological weapons. He was answerable also to the Foreign Office, which was actually paying his salary, because it held the budget for the inspection programmes Dr Kelly was advising.

Perhaps all the managers concerned were clear about who was responsible for what. At least one person, however, was not - and that was Dr Kelly himself. He had complained in writing about how he had apparently fallen into an administrative "black hole". As a specialist who was in much demand internationally, Dr Kelly may not have fitted easily into any one category, and he spent considerable periods out of London. But it is hard not to conclude that his distress resulted in part from the confusing structures that grew up when central government departments were spun off to "agencies" whose precise relationship with central government was ambiguous.

Dr Kelly's case also highlights the situation of specialists in a large bureaucracy. However brilliant his scientific achievements and however high the regard in which he was held by his peers, he was never admitted to the sanctum of the Senior Civil Service. The best he could aspire to was a "personal grade" that elevated his salary into the lowest of the senior administrative brackets.

In many big organisations, the most glittering prizes, in terms of salary and status, are reserved for the administrators - even if, as we witness the buck-passing between Dr Kelly's personnel managers, responsibility is habitually passed. It is surely questionable whether Dr Kelly and specialists like him in government (or "agency") service are adequately managed or rewarded.

Some similar structural difficulties can be discerned from what we have learnt about the BBC. Here, though, the chief problem seems to arise from the corporation's diffuseness - a quality of which it is traditionally proud. For such a world-class institution, however, loyalty or esprit de corps seems strangely lacking at the journalists' level. So little mutual support was offered by the individual reporters, you might have thought that the Today programme, Newsnight and The Ten O'clock News were in such mortal rivalry as competing daily newspapers.

When the director of news, Richard Sambrook, drew justified comparisons between the reports of Mr Gilligan and Ms Watts and divined that they might have consulted the same "source", Ms Watts interpreted his inquiries as moves to pressure her into corroborating her colleague's report. Mr Sambrook agreed not to press his case.

Mostly, however, the BBC's director of news offered a positive managerial example, combining a broad overview of the corporation's news coverage (for which he was ultimately responsible) with a readiness to defend it, tiger-like, against what he felt was unreasonable criticism. Some of the BBC's "line managers" were less robust.

The autonomy of individual BBC departments poses a further problem. It transpired that at least three BBC correspondents were consulting the same outside specialist, Dr Kelly. It could be argued not only that time was wasted and efforts were duplicated, but that the BBC's coverage of the Iraqi weapons issue may have been skewed because so many reporters relied on this one government source.

The costs of multiple departmentalism should be a concern to BBC managers. It may also be a point the Government chooses to return to when the BBC's Charter comes up for renewal.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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