Blame culture at the BBC led to unfair dismissal after £98m IT project failed

 

Cahal Milmo
Thursday 07 August 2014 18:32
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John Linwood, the former BBC chief technology officer, was fired over the failed Digital Media Initiative
John Linwood, the former BBC chief technology officer, was fired over the failed Digital Media Initiative

A culture of blame-shifting permeated the upper echelons of the BBC and contributed to the unfair dismissal of its former technology chief when a high-profile IT project went badly wrong, an employment tribunal found today.

John Linwood, who was paid a salary of £280,000 after being recruited from Yahoo! in 2009, was sacked in the wake of the £98.4m collapse of an attempt to integrate the BBC’s digital production system.

The Corporation, which announced that it had suspended Mr Linwood as its chief technology officer at the same time as it scrapped the project last summer, claimed that he had overseen a “massive waste of public funds” and had shirked responsibility for the failure of its Digital Media Initiative (DMI) to end all use of “tape”.

But Mr Linwood claimed he had been made a “scapegoat” for the failure and the troubled project - described by one executive as an attempt at “boiling the ocean” - need not have been entirely scrapped. The employment tribunal sided with him by finding that he had been unfairly dismissed from his post and subjected to a “fundamentally flawed” procedure to investigate alleged misconduct.

In a swingeing ruling, the tribunal found there existed in the BBC, still recovering from the Jimmy Savile at the time, a “deeply ingrained cultural expectation” that when something went wrong “on your watch” that executives deemed responsible for any failure would resign.

This in turn meant that the Corporation was suffused with “sensitivities, fears and anxieties” that managers would be left “carrying the can” for any fiasco and accordingly took action to ensure they avoided being singled out for responsibility.

The tribunal found: “This culture and climate gave rise to avoidance strategies, no doubt including, on occasion, the steering of the spotlight of blame in other directions, on the part of those who felt themselves to be in danger of association with a sinking ship”.

The 66-page judgment said the buck passing culture had been highlighted by the “quite extraordinarily unattractive” content of emails sent by Mr Linwood’s boss, Dominic Coles, and the BBC’s then creative officer, Pat Younge.

In one memo sent as the Corporation finalised the ending of DMI, Mr Younge said Mr Linwood could “just spin in the wind” while Mr Coles could “position yourself as the man who took it over, reviewed it and called time [on DMI]”.

The tribunal found that at a meeting of the Corporation’s executive board on 13 May last year, shortly after Tony Hall had arrived as the new director general, a decision had been made that “one way or another, [Mr Linwood] must go”.

It added it was likely this had flowed from an earlier meeting of the Corporation’s governing body, the BBC Trust, which it considered had effectively asked the Corporation’s executives to “find the culprit” for DMI’s failure.

When Mr Linwood refused to resign from his post and was subjected to a formal disciplinary procedure, the tribunal found the BBC breached its own rules and subjected its employee to an “apparently cavalier disregard for any of the accepted norms of a fair disciplinary process”.

In one incident, Mr Linwood asked for the postponement of a hearing to allow him time to read “thousands of emails” that had been disclosed to him shortly beforehand. The Corporation responded by bringing the meeting forward.

One of the human resources executives responsible for assessing Mr Linwood’s case - Clare Dyer - may not have read some key documents and had “appeared to regard the detail and the documents as a tiresome and unduly time-consuming distraction from the task in hand”, the tribunal found.

The former technology officer, who was found to have been 15 per cent responsible for his own dismissal, said the ruling was a “complete vindication” of his decision to fight the Corporation.

His solicitor Louise Hobbs said: “The judgment gives an unedifying insight into the inner workings of the BBC at senior management level.”

The BBC said it was “disappointed” but accepted the ruling. In a statement, the Corporation said: “We had a major failure of a significant project, and we had lost confidence - as the tribunal acknowledges - in John Linwood. At the time we believed we acted appropriately. The tribunal has taken a different view.”

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