Passing Sentence: the malaise of our times
The British Government has published its White Paper on the future of the BBC, ‘A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction’ (Cm9242). Following a long and febrile ideological debate about broadcast markets and public service between the dogmatic forces of neo-liberalism and the mellifluous antiquarians of Reithism, we discover that the BBC will go on as if nothing much has changed and nothing is amiss; but nevertheless we are to be persuaded by Government and the BBC that while nothing much has changed, at the same time important changes have been made. This confusing message is how an incoherent political fudge is typically sold to the public as substance in the modern world. The confusion is not only quite deliberate, it is intended to divert public attention from the real matter of substance in the BBC, by offering a seductive invitation to sink in to a soft bed of unresolved and obscure differences in ideological perspective that are, in the event, neither here nor there.
The White Paper proposes that a new BBC ‘unitary board’ will be appointed in place of the Governors and the BBC Trust, and Ofcom will become the official BBC regulator. There is little evidence that either change has much to do with market ideology. Typically the marketisation of the BBC has been advanced a little by the White Paper, with references to greater competitive commissioning, a ‘contestable public service content fund’, reference to efficiency achievement, to greater budget transparency, to NAO scrutiny, and to greater ‘partnership’ with the creative industries (which could mean almost anything). At the same time the antiquated ninety year framework that set up the BBC in the 1920s to prosper in a world that no longer exists (and designed for purposes now ill understood), and to which nobody would recommend returning anyway, nevertheless continues much the same; with the continuation of the licence fee and an inflation increase guaranteed that is no doubt intended by the marketisers to assuage the Reithians. Make of that what you will.
There are 19 separate references to ‘efficiency’ in the White Paper; 10 references to ‘savings’; and no less than 48 references to ‘competition’. There is one word, however that I could not find anywhere in the White Paper: Savile. The White Paper proposes to renew the BBC Charter in December 2016, and the Government has absolutely nothing at all to say about Savile or the consequences of Savile in coming to its decision. That omission is extraordinary, and if this debate about broadcasting was about matters of substance, it is unacceptable.
The relevant minister, John Whittingdale makes the following comments in his Foreword to the White Paper:
“The proposals that we are publishing today …. …. are the result of one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted, and are informed by the evidence that has been provided to us by those who watch and listen to the BBC: those who rely on it, those who love it, those who can be frustrated by it and those underserved by it.
Like any organisation the BBC is not perfect. And it has made mistakes. What is important is that the BBC learns from those mistakes, and that previous failings are addressed. In renewing the BBC’s Royal Charter, therefore, the government wants to enhance the best of the BBC, but address those areas where it could, and should, do better” (Cm9242, Foreword, p.5).
“Not perfect” scarcely does justice to the issues at stake over Savile. Indeed since Savile has been airbrushed from this official picture of broadcasting in Britain, we may wonder what “mistakes” Whittingdale has in mind? The White Paper appeals not to the Dame Janet Smith Report (see below), but to the Clementi Review, ‘A Review of the Governance and Regulation of the BBC’ March, 2016 (Cm9209), but for anyone prepared to go there, it appears there is no reference to Savile in Clementi either. In providing the Clementi Review’s Terms of Reference, the key considerations required to achieve the Review’s objectives included “principles of good governance” (Appendix I, p.85; section 2.b), which surely should have allowed reference to the problems of good governance for the BBC that are raised by Savile. The BBC was aware of the importance of Savile to issues of governance, because in December 2013 the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive Board produced a ‘Review of Internal Governance’ in December, 2013, in which it announces:
“In September , we announced our intention to review the BBC’s internal governance systems and structures, and the culture that surrounds them. We did this in response to events – the excessive severance payments to senior managers, the failure of the Digital Media Initiative technology project, the response to the Savile revelations and associated fallout – that had demonstrated that the BBC needed to do more to earn the confidence of the public in how the Corporation is run and held to account.
These events have prompted legitimate questions about the effectiveness of the BBC’s system of governance, both within and between the Trust and Executive. We have carried out a thorough review of how the BBC is governed and our conclusion is that, while the system itself is on the whole robust and effective, in some aspects of its operation the BBC’s governance system has become too confused. There is currently too much overlap in practice between the roles of the BBC Trust and the Executive Board; the structures are too complicated; and people inside and outside the BBC do not always know who is responsible when things go wrong” (Foreword, p.1).
The BBC review of governance, with but this single reference to the importance of Savile, is downloadable from the BBC Trust. The Clementi Report refers to the BBC internal governance review in very general terms, but not specifically with regard to Savile (Clementi Report, Ch.1, Sect.1, Para.15, p.16 and footnote 5). Of course nothing has been raised about Savile in the White Paper. Presumably it is all too embarrasing and awkward to be a suitable subject for discussion in polite society.
While Savile is not mentioned by the White Paper or Clementi, this merely serves to remind the genuinely serious (too few), or diligent (fewer still), that there is no reference in either document to the Dame Janet Smith Report, ‘An Independent Review into the BBC’s culture and practices during the Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall Years’, 2016. The Dame Janet Smith Report had been authorised by the BBC Executive Board, and published in January and February, 2016 (two volumes, and including a Stuart Hall Report). It may be downloaded from the BBC Trust website. The report is considered so difficult to read that it is accompanied by a warning of the distress it may cause readers. It provides an appalling story of abuse of women and children by Savile, that managed to be disguised and hidden in the open on the premises of this major public service broadcaster, “of distinction” (according to the government) over a long period. Allow me to express this as clearly as I can: what happened on the BBC’s ‘watch’ over this period is of such gravity that institutionally it should never be allowed to be forgotten. The time expiration of the BBC Charter is not just an issue to be decided solely by political or ideological issues of marketisation, but of whether the institution is fit to survive such a catastrophic failure of basic values, standards and culture over a long period of time, as the Savile affair starkly revealed in the Dame Janet Smith Report.
The BBC did not expose Savile’s activities; nor did the media, nor anybody else. Savile’s activities were only discovered because Savile died. There is no triumph of virtue or noble investigative effort for the public to celebrate; there is only abject failure to investigate, remember or believe; and no confidence may readily be staked on whether we have learned anything sufficient to ensure that it could not sometime, somewhere in our futures, recur: that is the real lesson of Savile, rather than the soothing, gravely modulated platitudes of either the Government or BBC. For anyone who believes otherwise, here are Dame Janet Smith’s words:
“The events which Dame Linda [Dobbs – the Stuart Hall Report] and I have described took place many years ago. However, the BBC must resist the temptation to treat what happened then as being of limited relevance to today. It clearly is not and I shall seek to explain the ways in which our findings are important to today’s BBC” (Conclusions, Vol.2, p.4-5, para.12. For Dame Janet Smith’s findings’ relevance for the BBC today see p.31-38, para.74-93).
I would wish to draw attention to two findings (Conclusions, Vol.2, p.37, paras 88 and 89); in which Dame Janet Smith saw evidence that the hierarchical, fear-based nature of management at the BBC “disturbed” her “about the extent to which staff were and still are afraid to raise complaints or concerns for fear of losing their jobs or the opportunity for promotion or, for freelancers, the fear of not being used again” (para.88); or her concerns about the indulgent attitude of some managers towards ‘the Talent’ (para.89).
At the heart of this matter there is only a terrible indictment not only of the BBC, but of the whole unreconstructed, faintly repellent capacity of British society to show excessive deference to any glibly sold or generally asserted ‘authority’, whether offically promoted or self-promoted, or the wilfully obsequious submission by the public to the vulgar narcissim of ostentatious celebrity, in which the BBC has proved an excessive and even leading promoter of the sycophancy. In spite of Dame Janet Smith’s clear proposals I have little confidence that anything of sufficient significance has really changed in Britain since Savile; least of all because either Parliament or the BBC may claim everything has changed, or indulge the spurious assertion by merely tinkering with the lamentable structures of outdated institutions.
I do not think there is much that could happen that is worse than this example of BBC failure, which I have drawn directly from Dame Janet Smith’s Report:
“There were three occasions when a complaint was made about Savile by a person from outside the BBC. On the first of these, C16 was assaulted by Savile at the age of 16 in September 1969. She went to Top of the Pops with a group of school friends (see paragraphs 5.62-5.65 and 5.355 of my Report [Ch.5, p.286-8 and p.398]). She wore hot pants and a long coat and was asked by a man with a clipboard to go onto a podium with Savile during the recording. C16 found herself very close to Savile. Suddenly, she felt his hand behind her waist, underneath the long coat. He unzipped the back of her hot pants and put his hand down inside her knickers underneath her bottom. She panicked and ran to the man with the clipboard, crying, and telling him what had happened. Another man came over to see what was going on. She was told that she must have been mistaken and, despite her protests and showing that her zip was undone, a security officer was summoned and told to escort her off the premises. She was taken out and left on the street” (Conclusions, Vol.2, p.4-5, para.12).
There is my working definition of “unforgivable”. It may be said that all this was a long time ago, but the deeply worrying point is that such activity was never acceptable, whatever is said then or now; and it is not a long time since Savile died, and nothing at all was done to redeem the situation in over forty years until his demise.
Dame Janet Smith goes on:
“I have not been able to identify the floor staff involved. This was a very serious assault on a young innocent girl; it was not dealt with properly. The BBC employee who received the complaint should have reported it to his manager or to the producer of the programme. It appears to me that the BBC floor staff at that time probably regarded this kind of conduct by Savile as harmless good fun and regarded a girl who complained about it as a nuisance. I can see that it might be said that C16 could have followed this up with a formal complaint to the Duty Office, but I do not criticise her in any way because she did not” (p.5).
This is precisely why I claim it is unforgivable. Somewhere a defence is being mounted, for Dame Janet Smith feels obliged to write: “I can see that it might be said….”: said by whom? Neatly, this surreptitious suggestion seeks to turn the onus, and perhaps even the reliability of the testimony, onto the victim. Let me be clear, the BBC lost the opportunity to redeem itself when it chose not to address the problem at the time, but chose instead to escort the young girl victim from the premises, branded a ‘nuisance’. Integrity marched out the door with her. There is no defence.
For all the care, wisdom and compassion for the victims and forensic pursuit of the facts that is brought to her report, Dame Janet Smith nevertheless appears effectively to define the BBC management as both beginning and ending with the Head of Department. Everything below this level is not, in Smith’s ontology, “the BBC”. Dame Janet Smith acknowledges that she is thinking as a judge, reviewing the matter narrowly in “the context of the criminal law”, and I defer to her knowledge of the facts (Conclusions, Vol.2, p.8, para.20). Criminality is not the issue at stake here, but Charter renewal and the suitability of the BBC to renew its Charter.
As a contribution to the theory and practice of management, in the context of Charter renewal the Smith interpretation of ‘management’ will not do. It establishes a layer of insulation between the management of an institution and the world that fails the test of Occam’s Razor. In trying to explain how this insulation works Dame Janet Smith refers to the fact that the BBC “is a hierarchical organisation and, as a general rule I think people tended to socialise with colleagues at their own level in the hierarchy”. (Conclusions, Vol.2, p.18, para.44): which may be true, but it scarcely provides a model of management acuity to be celebrated, or worse maintained as a seminal model for broadcasting practice into the future. We would not recommend the Smith thesis as the Holy Grail of management method, for this is not “management” at all, but a form of anti-management. It cannot stand as a functional recommendation for management.
There are a few simple principles of management that are understood by most people who have actually ‘managed’. The values, culture and standards of any institution begin with the management at the top. It is not sufficient to set standards by decree, and it is fundamental to management not just to design, but to execute policy effectively and to take full responsibility for both policy formation and execution; management is not an ‘a la carte’ menu. This requires senior management to know what is happening throughout the organisation and to take responsibility for what happens in its name. This does not mean that by exception failures will not occur that would be hard to prevent; that rogue events may happen in the best run organisations that are, from the perspective of the most active managements, unavoidable; and if I may forestall the proposition that the case I make depends on such an interpretation in all cases, for the avoidance of doubt the proposition that ‘bad things happen’ in the best regulated institutions may form the basis of an excuse extending to all management failures of this kind is mere sophistry.
Where the same failures to maintain the management’s institutional standards and values recur with regularity, or persist over the long term, then there is clearly a problem with the maintenance of the institution’s culture and values that cannot be explained by appeal to rogue circumstances, and the final responsibility for this kind of persistent failure must rest with senior management; ultimately with the ‘institution’ itself, and nowhere else. Management cannot be everywhere but it can and must ‘walk the job’; it must be able to know what is happening throughout the organisation. Where this is deemed no longer possible, this is typically a symptom that the organisation is either too large, or management is losing control and failing; and in such cases the time is often ripe to break-up the organisation. Management is not a matter of writing a decree; management entails execution of policy: and this goes to the root of management responsibility. These fundamental responsibilities of management are non-negotiable.
I do not believe that any institution is so important that it must survive in perpetuity, no matter what. Indeed the fact that the BBC Charter is time expired confirms that even Parliament does not believe in ‘no matter what’. There can be no justification to maintain the BBC no matter what; and the Savile affair is precisely ‘no matter what’. The solution to this problem is severe but necessary. The BBC Charter should not be renewed.
This does not mean that there is no future for a Public Service broadcaster. In the 1920s the BBC was created from nothing. If the case for a Public Service Broadcaster is strong, it is not beyond the ability of 21st century society to create its purpose anew, designed quite specifically for the more complex broadcast world we now live in. This is an aspiration worth pursuing; instead of tinkering with failure, offering a solution designed by failures, inevitably to fail in a spiral of further disappointment, or perhaps to repeat past mistakes. The risk is not worth a further investment in a discredited ‘status quo’. Indeed to start afresh is the rational solution for the complexities of our age; but the old BBC is beyond redemption and should be allowed to expire. Such an organisation, that failed to address the Savile problem until after his death cannot be worth saving.