Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check / Richard D North / Trust and reputations

25 October 2012

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Savile and the BBC’s clip-board kings and queens

[This is a guest post by Richard D North.] The most important questions about the BBC and Savile saga are often left a little late in the discussion. First, why did anyone of ordinary savviness at the top of a mass entertainment organisation think the old weirdo was worth a post-mortem tribute, granted the strength of the rumours which had been going round for years?

And, second, why did anyone anywhere near the top of a journalistic organisation nurture the idea that Newsnight’s investigation could disappear merely because it wasn’t broadcast? I think the answers to both questions are typically BBC, and especially as it now is. And so we get to a third question: didn’t the BBC see that the Chinese walls of rectitude might become the silos of self-destructive departmentalism?

Jimmy Savile’s image

The BBC seems to me to be run by over-educated aparatchics of the liberal elite who have tripped up over their clip-boards. They’d got their precious process and accountability and integrity so battened down, they couldn’t spot an enormous shit-storm as it headed toward them. One might say that they had so organised themselves as never to have another Andrew Gilligan or a Russell Brand that they could not see an enormous Jimmy Savile.

Of course, I don’t know for sure. I’m not there and I don’t see the BBC close-up at any level above receptionists, more or less larky researchers and interns, gofer junior producers, and the occasional glimpse at more or less leathery or wary presenters. Sometimes by chance or in the distance I see senior producers and executives and they have never, so far, failed to unimpress. I see how an Evan Davis (“Built In Britain”) or a Stephanie Flanders (“Masters of Money”) can break out and set a real style and say something quite or very real: a strong personality can poke through the miasma. And the miasma is not frightful or wicked, it’s just a bit ho-hum and a turn-off. I can see how a generational change will work well, and that may be all that’s needed: time. But I do still think the whole institution needs to be dumped.

I have for several years believed that we ought to “Scrap the BBC!” (the title of my book along those lines). Oddly, it’s no fun watching the BBC’s upper reaches reveal themselves as clots. I do sourly note that they’ve never done me any favours. More loftily I do think they have not been good for the BBC or broadcasting. But more to the point of my book: I wonder if the problem of the rule by clip-board is an inevitable function of what I dislike about the BBC as an institution. You see, I am not very interested in how the BBC happens to be run at the moment; but in whether an over-regulated, poll tax-funded behemoth could ever be run well.

That the present clip-boards are in charge fits well with the BBC’s structure and role, but is such ghastliness in one form or another inevitable until we stop cosseting and corseting such a beast?

The answer to that question is probably, yes. In other words, whether one sacked or kept Entwhistle, Rippon and Patten (and whether one lauded Thompson or not) the BBC would remain an over-mighty, smug, pseudo-dissident redundancy from another age. Indeed, I am inclined to leave the BBC’s top brass exactly where they are. They are adept at learning mantras and new tricks: they’ll learn fairly decent responses  to their present predicament. And leaving them in place would have the merit of denying scalps to the media and our silly Select Committees (heaven forfend I should ever see them so).

By the way, it is fairly easy to see how Jimmy Savile got away with his behaviour. Crucially, as many people have noted, he hid in plain sight. But it is important that NHS people assumed Savile must be alright if the BBC thought he was; and the BBC thought he must be alright if the NHS thought he was. Since I’d like to see the back of both monoliths, I might make a cheap point here. I won’t, because it is more important to note that it is terribly easy for different worlds to misunderstand each other and let good sense slip down the gaps between them. That kind of thing could happen, even if we grow out of state-sponsored corporatism, unless people keep asking themselves very awkward, worldly-wise questions (whilst not becoming cynical – and that’s not an easy trick: BBC Moral Maze).

I think there are very strong elements in the writing on this subject from Peter Oborne (good on BBC clip-boardery), Matthew d’Ancona (good on Savile’s playing institutions against each other), and Simon Jenkins (good on the absurdity of some modern inquiries in The Jimmy Savile witch-hunt sets us on a path to paranoia). I disagree with bits of their differing analyses, but take great comfort from our having such stuff.

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One response to “Savile and the BBC’s clip-board kings and queens”

  1. Paul Seaman says:

    Richard, from a PR perspective my major concern has been how the BBC has been accused of organising a conspiracy. The more the BBC has told the inside story, the more people have expressed their distrust and horror at any revelation that is awkward or seemingly inconsistent. But real life is rarely without such bumps… The overly-emotional response to any challenging truths – honestly exposing hypocrisy and errors of judgement – the BBC has told reveals a lack of trust in modern institutions. Clearly, the BBC has erred, not least by love-bombing Savile’s legacy, and it may not have always handled things well. But none of that adds substance to suggestions that the BBC was complicit in Savile’s disgusting crimes. The concern for PRs, then, has to be that in the current climate truth telling seems to fuel crises of all sorts, rather than dampen them. Then there’s the not trivial matter when it comes to Savile (also Italian geologists) of leading commentators and public figures redefining for the worse the principles of criminal justice: see An inhumane presumption of guilt @ On both counts, that’s really bad news for society in general.