Crises at BBC Brought Rules, Then a Failure

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

LONDON -- It was 2004, and the British Broadcasting Corporation was gripped by a crisis over journalistic standards that had led to Parliamentary hearings, public recrimination and the resignations of its two top officials. Vowing change, the corporation established elaborate bureaucratic procedures that placed more formal responsibility for delicate decisions in the hands not of individual managers, but of rigid hierarchies.

The corporation also appointed a deputy director general in charge of news operations; established a "journalism board" to monitor editorial policy; issued numerous new guidelines on journalistic procedures; and put an increasing emphasis on "compliance" -- a system in which managers are required to file cumbersome forms flagging dozens of potential trouble spots, from bad language to "disturbing content" like exorcism or beheadings, in every program taped for broadcast.

More crises would follow -- the history of the BBC can be measured out in crises -- and with each new one, the management team under Mark Thompson, director general from 2004 through mid-September 2012, added more guidelines and put more emphasis on form-filling and safety checks in news and entertainment programs. An organization already known for its bureaucracy became even more unwieldy (the editorial guidelines are now 215 pages long).

But it is these very structures that seem to have failed the BBC in the most recent scandal, in which its news division first canceled a child abuse segment it should have broadcast, and later broadcast one it should have canceled. In the first instance, it appears that people overseeing the program were too cautious, so that top managers were left unaware of its existence; in the second, managers may have relied too much on rigid procedures at the expense of basic journalistic principles.

"They burned their fingers," said Tim Luckhurst, a journalism professor at the University of Kent who worked at the BBC for 10 years. "They wanted systems that could take responsibility instead of people."

The recent scandal has had a number of immediate results. Mr. Thompson's successor as director general, George Entwistle, resigned after just 54 days on the job. (Mr. Thompson is now president and chief executive of The New York Times Company.) Outside investigators were appointed to interrogate BBC employees in at least three different inquiries. A number of lower- and midlevel managers had to withdraw temporarily from their jobs and, facing possible disciplinary action, hired lawyers. And, once again, the BBC is talking about reorganizing structures.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Entwistle declined to comment on the scandal or the BBC's management practices, saying he was "not doing any media interviews at present." Mr. Thompson also declined to comment.

But Mr. Entwistle's temporary successor, Tim Davie, who had previously been director of BBC Audio & Music, acknowledged that changes had to be made. "If the public are going to get journalism they trust from the BBC I have to be, as director general, very clear on who's running the news operation and ensuring that journalism that we put out passes muster," Mr. Davie said in his first week on the job. The first thing to do, he said, was to "take action and build trust by putting a clear line of command in."

This is a complicated scandal in two parts. The first part was over the BBC's decision last December not to broadcast a report saying that Jimmy Savile, a longtime BBC television host, had been a serial child molester, and instead to broadcast several glowing tributes to his career. The second part was its decision on Nov. 2 to accuse a member of Margaret Thatcher's government of being a pedophile, an accusation that turned out to be patently false.

But both exposed the problems in a system that seems to insulate the BBC's director general -- who is also the editor in chief -- from knowledge of basic issues like what potentially contentious programs are scheduled for broadcast. And both decisions were the result, it seems, of a system that failed in practice, even as it was correctly followed in theory.

Ben Bradshaw, a former BBC correspondent and now a Labour member of Parliament, said the 2004 scandal, touched off by reporting about British intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, had created a system based on "fear and anxiety." The BBC, he added, became "even more bureaucratic and had even more layers, which exacerbated the problem of buck passing and no one being able to take a decision."

Speaking of the Nov. 2 broadcast, the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, said in a television interview that the piece went through "every damned layer of BBC management bureaucracy, legal checks" without anyone raising any serious objections.

Employees with knowledge of the chain of events said that numerous people knew in advance that the broadcast contained an allegation about a senior Tory politician; people on Twitter speculated about the politician's identity before the segment was aired (the segment did not name him, but it was clear in context who he was).

But because it had been "lawyered" and "complied," meaning it had passed the requisite legal and compliance tests, and been "referred up" the chain of responsibility, the piece was considered sound -- even though no one, apparently, had asked standard questions like whether the accuser was credible or whether the accused had had a chance to respond to the accusations.

The segment, prepared by "Newsnight," a BBC current-affairs program, was mentioned by a "Newsnight" editor at the regular BBC-wide 3 p.m. news meeting on the day it was scheduled to run, said a senior BBC journalist with knowledge of the meeting.

"Nobody asked too many questions," the journalist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because BBC employees are not authorized to talk to outside reporters without permission from their "line managers," or supervisors. "It was being lawyered, and you had the impression that things were under control."

In fact, the story had raised flags during the compliance exercise. But "Newsnight" was like a struggling hockey team with key players in the penalty box. Some senior staff members were in the United States, covering the election. The editor of "Newsnight" had "stepped aside," the BBC said, following the Savile debacle; the deputy editor had recently left the corporation. That left the new deputy editor temporarily in charge.

Meanwhile, the BBC's head and deputy head of news had recused themselves from abuse-related stories because of their involvement in the Savile case. Another senior news figure was on vacation in South America.

So the people in the new chain of command -- including the controller of Radio Five Live, whom Mr. Entwistle had put in charge of child-abuse-related stories, and the director of BBC Northern Ireland, to whom the Radio Five controller was meant to report -- apparently had little experience with how "Newsnight" worked. And though the Northern Ireland director served alongside Mr. Entwistle on the BBC Management Board, he did not mention the "Newsnight" report to the director general, BBC journalists say.

"The thinking was, 'We don't want to get George involved in this, because he's not supposed to involve himself in anything involving child abuse,' " said a BBC News anchor, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But they should have told him anyway."

BBC journalists say that the people along the chain were more concerned with checking the right boxes than with asking the right questions. One compared what happened to a plane spiraling out of control in which the pilot, rather than pulling on the controls, reaches for an instruction manual and begins to check off steps.

But at the BBC, there is no choice but to reach for the manual, employees say. "The actual process can be quite onerous, but a lot of people feel quite pressurized -- if any of these things are not filled in or not done, there was a real sense that you could be sacked for it," said Sian Kevill, a former director of BBC World News.

Oddly enough, one of the reforms put in place in 2004 -- the appointment of a deputy director general in charge of news -- might have staved off trouble. The person in the job, Mark Byford, was seen by many in the news divisions to be annoyingly intrusive but also very effective. He also, employees say, kept Mr. Thompson informed of news-related things he needed to know.

"His mantra was 'Grip, grip, grip -- get control of it,' " said Ed Williams, a former director of communications at the BBC and an adviser to Mr. Thompson, speaking of Mr. Byford. But Mr. Byford became a casualty of the other big pressure on the BBC: the criticism that it is too bloated with layers of management.

Pledging to cut executive pay by 25 percent, Mr. Thompson eliminated Mr. Byford's job in June 2011, and with it perhaps the closest link between the BBC's director general and the corporation's news divisions.

Matthew Purdy contributed reporting from New York, and Lark Turner from London.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here