Belfast Telegraph

Journalists, not bureaucrats, need to be in control

There is only one way to salvage the BBC's battered reputation... put those who know what they're doing in charge, says Stephen Price

Different professions attract different personality types. Nurses need to be caring; firemen must be brave and there is no point in being a teacher if you don't like young people.

So it is with journalism. Journalists must be inquisitive by nature and willing to challenge authority. They must be outspoken. Do not become a journalist if you are a wallflower.

Journalists get a bad Press, but in fact, most are painfully honest people. They must report without favour, even when their work touches negatively on professional contacts, friends and family.

And when journalists make mistakes - which they sometimes will - they need to take responsibility and correct themselves publicly.

Unfortunately, the qualities that make a good journalist are not those demanded by the BBC when appointing managers, which is a shame, since the BBC's core function is journalism.

In my opinion, the reason the BBC is in such trouble at present is because it is managed by people who are not courageous, who do not challenge the status quo and who do not speak out when they should.

Precisely the opposite; the BBC appoints conformists as managers, so we get waffle, evasion and a palpable contempt for public opinion when mistakes are made.

To declare an interest, I used to work for the BBC and my wife still does. It is a fine institution and the world would be a much poorer place without it.

Many clever and talented people dedicate their lives to the BBC, but like First World War soldiers, they are lions led by donkeys.

To understand the BBC, you need to grasp that it is a bureaucracy first and a programme-maker second. Bureaucrats rule the BBC and the best way to progress into management is to be 'a safe pair of hands.'

Bolshy journalists and edgy programme-makers rarely become managers and, when they do, they are quickly subsumed, or defeated, by the all-pervasive culture of playing it safe.

So, if BBC managers like to play it safe, why does it make such horrendous mistakes? How can it fail to broadcast an expose about a paedophile when it should have, then smear a politician as a paedophile when it shouldn't?

In the run-up to Christmas 2011, the BBC was preparing a brace of tribute programmes to Jimmy Savile, but its current affairs show Newsnight had recorded an interview with a woman and taken statements from several more about Savile's paedophilia. That is what is called a multiple-source story and if your sources are credible, you run with it.

However, we are told that Newsnight's then editor, Peter Rippon, suddenly dropped the Savile expose of his own accord. For me, it is very hard to believe that on a story of such magnitude, Rippon did not consult upwards.

But the bureaucratic reaction on hearing bad news (and the news that Savile had abused children on BBC premises was very bad) is always one of paralysis.

Bureaucrats deal with bad news by saying as little as possible and hoping it goes away. Hence, we have senior BBC managers and ex-managers tying themselves in knots over what they knew, or didn't know about Savile.

In a bureaucracy, to admit knowledge is to admit responsibility and bureaucrats love wielding power, but hate taking blame. They are not natural journalists.

Newsnight was plunged into disgrace over Savile, so what did the BBC do? It called in more bureaucrats.

Peter Johnston, the director of BBC Northern Ireland, was one senior figure tasked with approving a so-called story about a Tory politician abusing vulnerable children in Wales.

The story was single-source, the source wasn't shown a photograph of the politician to verify his identity, the politician wasn't given a right to reply and he wasn't named.

Not a proper story by any journalistic standards, yet it ran.

Peter Johnston joined BBC NI in 1994 from a marketing background and rose quickly. He might be many things, but a journalist is not one of them.

Director general George Entwistle was forced to resign over this second Newsnight scandal, albeit with an obscenely large pay-off.

He was replaced by Tim Davie, whose background is ... marketing.

At the time of writing, Johnston insists he won't follow Entwistle. Like Entwistle, we BBC viewers watched the unedifying prospect of Johnston being doorstepped by his own journalists, because he wouldn't grant the organisation that he manages a sit-down interview.

"The BBC in recent years has throttled itself on its own bureaucracy ... it is over-managed and badly managed, so that no one knows how, or where, decisions are taken." Not my words, but those of David Dimbleby, who has been a BBC journalist for half-a-century.

The only way to repair the damage at the BBC is to fire all the bureaucrats, who are parasites on the public purse, and put a handful of very experienced journalists in charge instead.

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