Ian Burrell: One casualty of the digital revolution we should not lament – the old-school newsroom bully

It is at the BBC, of all places, that allegations of bullying have been loudest

Ian Burrell
Monday 03 February 2014 04:10

A soldier signs up in the knowledge that he might, one day, be obliged to take another human life; a nurse is sure to face the sight of blood and a police officer must be able to arrest a criminal suspect. Even in the apparently cushioned and glamorous world of the media there are certain dangers that come with the job. Some happily accept the risks, heading off to the front line of war zones, investigating corrupt networks or filming rioters at close quarters. But should physical and psychological harm be a threat even inside the newsroom?

Bullying, I’m sad to say, has become a potent topic in modern British media. For some it will be a non-issue, particularly those old-stagers who argue that it was forever thus in an industry that rewards ruthless ambition. Whether bright graduates will be so ambivalent to the problem is another matter entirely.

Traditional media is under pressure – surely a factor in workplace tensions – but for the multi-skilled, digital natives emerging from colleges with a hunger to tell stories there have never been so many career options.

British newspapers and broadcasters – in my view, the best in the world – are now in competition with myriad other employers for this talent. Today’s young film-maker might be sent on foreign assignment by a sports drink company and would not be criticised by their peers for selling out to such a paymaster. Why then should they subject themselves old-media atmosphere, where fear stalks the office?

It is at the BBC, of all places, that the allegations of bullying have been loudest. After an inquiry in which more than 900 people came forward with information, the director-general Tony Hall has prioritised the problem and encouraged staff to use a new anti-bullying hotline.

How could this happen at the most revered of British media institutions, a place that many assumed was a sanctuary of intellectualism and decency where some of the nation’s finest minds endeavoured to educate, inform and entertain?

Some of the most alarming allegations have centred on BBC Radio’s youth news service Newsbeat, attached to Radio 1. More than 30 serving and former Newsbeat staff and contributors lodged complaints, as this paper revealed. They talked of a “climate of paranoia and fear”, citing bullying and favouritism. Many were reduced to tears. One journalist described how she was in such a state that she shut herself in a cupboard. The BBC held a year-long inquiry at the end of which the Newsbeat editor Rod McKenzie was moved out his job to another part of the BBC.

It’s not a very encouraging picture of how the BBC treats some of its best young talent. Some of the editor’s supporters say he was the victim of a campaign by staff with a grievance. But one claim – that McKenzie’s behaviour was “entirely in keeping with a pressurised news environment” – says it all.

The newspaper trade title Press Gazette has conducted online research among its readers on bullying in the press industry. “I suspect that some of the BBC bullies are angels compared to some of the characters in Fleet Street,” says its editor Dominic Ponsford. “Journalism is quite an unusual profession. It’s a macho industry where people are expected to suck up what’s thrown at them and just crack on. It’s not good for diversity in the newsroom and does help explain why there’s a scarcity of women in senior jobs.”

Maybe we can laugh at the editor who told a colleague he could eat alphabet spaghetti and “shit a better headline than that”, or the boss who responded to being bid “good morning” with the words: “If I wanted a fucking weather report I would have asked for one.” But reports of physical attacks by male executives on female reporters are different altogether.

It has been argued, convincingly, that bullying played a part in the phone hacking that has so tarnished the newspaper business. The scandal inspired Lord Justice Leveson’s attempts to reform the industry’s culture. He hardly succeeded – a senior figure told me recently that one editor’s famously aggressive style is what the bosses feel is needed to get the most from staff.

Over at Telegraph Media Group, editor-in-chief Jason Seiken wants to do something different; Taking the shackles off reporters and encouraging them to find their inner broadcaster by auditioning in the company’s video studios. Some are sceptical, seeing this as the misguided vision of an outsider who doesn’t understand Fleet Street. But Seiken is right in at least one respect. If traditional British media organisations are to survive in a future where every corporation is a publisher, they must give the young writers and film-makers whom we need to become the next generation of independent storytellers an environment where they feel confident enough to do their best work.

Twitter: @iburrell

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