Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

No old tricks will save the BBC's house of cards

Normally deputy heads roll when crisis engulfs the BBC. This time, though, the buck has gone all the way to the top, says Martin Dillon

BBC confirmation last night that Peter Johnston, its head of operations in Northern Ireland, had a role to play in the Newsnight fiasco highlights the fact that the net is widening.

There are, no doubt, management figures waiting for the call from above saying that it is better to walk the plank with a generous financial package than face gruelling internal investigations and public scrutiny, or ridicule.

It is conceivable that senior personnel managers are busy preparing generous handouts for those willing to leave quietly.

Anytime the BBC comes under serious political pressure, it buckles, appears contrite and searches earnestly for staff on the lower rungs of the career ladder to take the fall.

If the majority of those earmarked for the train out of Dodge turn out to be senior management, that will be a rarity. Licence payers will, however, learn over time that they contributed mightily to the train ride.

No one knew the BBC better than Margaret Thatcher. In her years at Number 10, she was adept at putting the BBC into a tailspin.

All she had to do was make a phonecall to the corporation and internal memos began flying, setting out new and more stringent lines of communication for news and current affairs editors.

That was especially true when the BBC was handling sensitive matters related to the Northern Ireland Troubles. But there were very few sacrificial lambs when things went badly wrong, which makes this present saga all the more remarkable.

Watching what looks like a Night of the Long Knives from my home in New York, I am left with the impression the BBC will not only come away from this very chastened, but with a slimmed-down management structure.

In my days at the BBC, management figures were aloof. It was never clear if they paid much attention to the minutiae of programming, though there was enough information on paper to keep them informed if they so wished.

Senior managers were, however, always able to claim they did not see a particular memo. They would argue that they had been so busy they could not keep track of every programme issue.

That was, to some extent, true, but when it came to the most serious issues, there were communications channels always open and busy between Broadcasting House in Belfast and the top echelons of BBC management in London.

This present crisis is one, I suggest, without parallel, in part because times have changed and the corporation's senior managers can no longer enjoy big salaries and pass the buck downwards.

Friends I have spoken to at the BBC feel it is about time the spotlight was focused on a management structure out of touch with reality. Others have accused those at the top of buckling under political pressure, creating shockwaves that are tilting the editorial process in a direction from which it will never regain the investigative freedom it once had.

In my time, the BBC centrally loved its management system and many of the people appointed managers were not especially good at managing. There was also an innate tendency for people to slap each other on the back while everyone was watching their backs.

There was a joke that Broadcasting House in London was built as a round structure so everyone could have their backs to the wall as they walked from one office to another.

The view of what is happening from another media capital, New York, represents a mixture of shock and disbelief.

When the Jimmy Savile story broke, some American commentators compared it to the cover-up that surrounded Gerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach who abused boys in his care for decades and was recently jailed for life.

I was upset that the BBC persisted in playing dumb about Jimmy Savile's sexual history. I can recall, when I was in London in the mid-1970s, hearing stories about Savile's predilection for young girls.

It was well-known in Radio 1 circles, as well as in Top of the Pops, and the music industry, that he was not the man he pretended to be. Stories about him were told with a mixture of humour and disbelief, since he was that iconic figure we all knew, who cloaked himself in a charitable persona.

Perhaps it was not surprising, in the light of decades of denial about Savile, that the BBC would get it wrong again when trying to expose another story about abuse. The reality is the corporation can no longer sweep stuff under the rug, as some senior managers often did in the past.

I know of an internal BBC inquiry when the senior editorial figure on the panel was confronted by a witness with the fact he had been informed about an editorial decision to report on the incident that was the subject of the inquiry. "But I told you personally about that," the witness told him.

The senior panel member turned to the panel's notetaker. "Strike that from the record," he ordered her.

There is no possibility that will happen in the BBC inquiries to come. After all, considering the seriousness of what has transpired, licence payers deserve no less.

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