Newsnight’s chaos and confusion 

22 February 2013

Here’s a question to puzzle over. If Lord Patten didn’t think much of ex-BBC Director-General Mark Thompson having “more senior leaders than China”, why didn’t he force Thompson to justify his position and make relevant changes to the BBC’s management structure at a much earlier stage? Or wasn’t that in his (or the BBC Trust’s) remit?

This is the damning question that kind of presents itself by default as a consequence of the BBC’s internal Savile inquiry of which documents were released by the BBC today, namely management behaving incompetently with a lot of “faffing about” (Lord Patten’s comment) and so paralysed by the need to pander to differing interest groups throughout the corporation. And Thompson was supposed to be saving money.

At the moment it seems that the only role for the Trust is to prevent the BBC from launching new services if they happen to conflict with existing and/or imminent commercial services, and the chances of anything significant happening at the moment are pretty slim to say the least. (Now it’s only the inevitable BBC Two HD as a replacement for BBC HD, which was enjoyable but had somewhat erratic scheduling as it tried to cater for both live events and fixed time channel simulcasts.) That and the regular service reviews that pick two or three channels for a ‘review’ which is reminiscent of those employee appraisal meetings that some companies schedule at intervals, inevitably end up achieving relatively little of note. (Lots of words, very little action.)

If anything, this enquiry has exonerated ex-BBC News head Helen Boaden to a degree, especially if she misunderstood the severity of the Savile allegations at an early stage thinking that they solely related to tabloid newspaper coverage, and given that Savile was Saint Jimmy right up to beyond that point this is perhaps understandable if rather unfortunate. However she still failed to communicate key information up the management chain if reports are to be believed, perhaps due to Thompson’s decision to get rid of his deputy (Mark Byford), with any related managers supposedly not sufficiently adapting to new roles in the aftermath.

BBC management’s choice of Newsnight editor Peter Rippon as the “fall guy” for all of this was also inevitable if management was in permanent denial mode at this stage; another symptom of chronic overmanagement when it’s all to easy to blame someone else when it comes down to indecisiveness – “It’s his fault, not mine”…

So it may be easy to applaud the BBC Trust for not interfering in management politics, but the crucial question just has to be “What is the BBC Trust good for when it can see an obvious problem but can’t do a thing about it”?

Indeed it now looks as if some of the mistakes can be attributed to rapid changes of personnel as with the aforementioned removal of Mark Byford out of the management system, not to mention the chaos that erupted at Newsnight surrounding the broadcast of an implied allegation relating to Lord McAlpine that turned out to be totally false, most likely caused by the removal of editor Peter Rippon due to the previous Savile scandal.

(Also bear in mind previous cutbacks that may have made BBC News particularly vulnerable to mistakes caused by a lack of resources.)

So once Tony Hall has sorted out all of this mess, he needs to guarantee stability for all staff at the BBC so that people really know where their responsibilities lie. Which, after all, appears to be a major point of failure within the corporation at this moment in time along with a need for more investment within the news and current affairs division in order to prevent mistakes being made and/or important investigative work being prematurely pulled due to a lack of resources.

You Say

1 response to this article

Arthur Murgatroyd 28 February 2013 at 2:11 am

The Right Honourable Tessa Jowell explained in June 2010 the purpose of the BBC Trust which she implemented from an original idea by former failed BBC Board of Governors chairman Michael Grade (who then went on to fail as executive chairman of ITV).

“The conception of the BBC Trust was essentially to put the licence fee payer in charge.”

“It is for those who are members of the trust, the chairman of the trust, to exercise the imagination and to understand the mood of the moment.”

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