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Crisis, which crisis?

Crisis, which crisis?

🕔13.Nov 2012

The events at the BBC are nothing short of astonishing. In the height of the Savile scandal, I heard some commentators say it was the worst crisis ever, including the events that led to the Hutton Inquiry. I thought that an overblown, headline seeking opinion. Now, it does not seem quite so far-fetched.

Let’s make two things clear. The BBC remains a fantastic institution of which I am a big supporter. Secondly, this stuff (that I’m about to opine on) is far, far less important than getting to the bottom of a series of child abuse scandals.

I spent most of Saturday not convinced George Entwistle should resign. I had not heard the infamous Today interview, but picked up the headlines and themes on Twitter and elsewhere. I thought, even after some extraordinarily bad crisis handling in recent weeks, the DG might be able to sweat it out.

However, as I heard more and more analysis following his departure (sneaking a few looks at my iPhone under a restaurant table in Brighton as the news broke and then on radio as I drove back) it became clear there was simply no other option.

The former DG had made some very bad calls in his 54 days at the helm. I was never convinced by his appointment – I thought the moment was not right for a BBC insider with a managerial rather than visionary approach. That said, he came across as a very decent and honourable man who must have demonstrated a range of talents over the years. Such a view remains in the hours after his departure.

Until his Today interview, many of his judgements could (just about) be rationalised. But, they had begun to demonstrate the threads of extraordinarily poor leadership. After everything else, I could even believe that he would have not seen the offending Newsnight film before transmission (2 November). But not to know of the existence of such a report that was going to, effectively, accuse a member of a former PM’s kitchen cabinet of child abuse is incredulous. More amazing is that he did not grip the situation as Lord MacAlpine’s identity emerged online during the week and certainly as the Guardian broke the mistaken identity story outside of Twitter on 9 November.

It beggars belief that the then DG clung to the excuse that matters were “not brought to my attention.” Just as with the Savile case, he demonstrated a lack of curiosity. Such a pro-active gap could not be excused this time. Just what speech could be so important to not bother noticing the Guardian story or the fact that a revelatory piece of BBC journalism lacked even the most basic of editorial checks?

Leadership is about seeing problems long before they emerge, spotting opportunities prior to being noticed or acted upon by others. Leaders do not wait for bombs to go off, they do not stand in ‘receive’ position – they use every one of their senses to see what’s out there, what’s going on and what might come at them.

Lord Patten explained that Entwistle was painstakingly putting in place the right systems and processes to deal with both of the Newsnight crisis and the wider failings of BBC management. That perhaps illuminates the real problem – too much emphasis on getting the bureaucracy right and not enough genuine leadership.

Beyond Entwistle himself, what the hell were his private and press office staffs doing? Did no one thrust a digest of media stories on or relevant to the BBC under his nose before he made a speech or walked into a meeting? Are DG office staff and wider management not constantly on the lookout for what the DG should know or need to act upon? More specifically, wasn’t there a general understanding around the place that any BBC activity or coverage that included the words ‘Newsnight’ and ‘child abuse’ should be passed direct to the editor-in-chief – and fast?

Who was preparing him for appearances in front of Select Committees or his own star radio presenters? He was clearly uncomfortable in such environments and certainly did not generate confidence among licence fee payers, staff or other stakeholders. As David Dimbleby said on the Today programme, the DG has to be able to “fight” for the Corporation. The man who departed on Saturday was obviously not up to that particular aspect of the job.

The BBC is, with trust in itself and its journalism historically low, now being run by a person with no journalistic experience or credentials. On today’s evidence, he is not much of a media performer either. (Get yourself a tie and don’t look away from the camera, sir.)

Entwistle should not have been offered the role; he had staggeringly bad luck in terms of timing and has done a very honourable thing in resigning (frankly, I am not excited about his pay off). Patten and the Trust need to think very carefully about the qualities they need in a DG, but at the same time be careful not to empty the baby with the proverbial.

Patten and Davie have already made it clear a significant management restructure is on the cards. I would start with the DG’s private office and those responsible for the Corporation’s strategic communications. The BBC’s reputation is on the line. Nothing but nothing matters more than trust and credibility right now.

Kevin Johnson is a former director of public affairs for Central TV. He is now a Partner at RJF Public Affairs and MD of strategic communications specialists, Urban Communications.

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