There is a case to be made that the BBC should not have its Charter renewed in 2027; and indeed a case that the Charter should be terminated early. This is not a case based on neoliberal, ‘free market’ economics (aside altogether from the flawed, loose use of both the terms ‘free’ and ‘market’ by neoliberalism). Public Service Broadcasting has to ensure the maintenance of high standards; ‘straight dealing’ in the terminology drawn from the BBC’s own Producers Guidelines (1993 edition), and a great deal better than the BBC has consistently been able to perform: an existential, institutional problem within the BBC has been revealed by recent and past events, from Savile (the Savile Report dated 2016) to Bashir (the Dyson Report dated 2021).
My case against the BBC therefore goes back much further than Dyson’s critical review of the infamous Bashir interview on Panorama, here: (http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/reports/reports/dyson-report-20-may-21.pdf). This is not the first time I have written about the issue, and for the second time I am arguing there is just cause to terminate the BBC Charter; this time powerfully reinforced by the abject failure of the BBC to live up to earlier assurances about reform following a major failure of culture and management following Savile. I made precisely the same point in ‘Passing Sentence: the malaise of our times’, Bella Caledonia, 16th May 2016 here: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2016/05/16/passing-sentence-the-malaise-of-our-times/. Nothing has changed, if only we care to look; and once we examine the Savile Report and the Dyson Investigation as a single unfolding problem of process, procedure and management in the BBC, I propose that these are not marks of superficial lesions, to be removed like ‘bad eggs’, or merely incompetent leadership: this goes rather to the root, to the fundamental nature of the BBC culture.
Nothing of substantive materiality has clearly changed from 2016. At that time the regulatory pieces were moved around the chess board; the BBC Trust, which under public scrutiny, particularly examination by a Parliamentary Select Committee of representatives of the BBC Trust at the time, demonstrated that the Trust had become a mere PR embarrassment. It was hastily dissolved, and Ofcom (created in 2002 as an industry regulator of communications markets, including the Postal Service) was simply handed this new task of BBC regulation, for which it had not been designed, and without sufficient thought to the deeper governance issues (we will return to this later). The cataclysmic event that had set up this masterpiece of broadcast ‘planning’, shuffling the regulatory cards from available stock answers, was of course the publication of the excoriating official reports by Dame Janet Smith on Jimmy Savile (here: http://downloads.bbci.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/dame_janet_smith_review/conclusions_summaries.pdf) and by Dame Linda Dobbs on Stuart Hall. Remember these two leading BBC celebrities, Savile and Hall? How eagerly the BBC wishes everyone would just forget they had ever existed in the BBC; although Savile especially was celebrated almost as a broadcasting icon during their combined long, long prominent exposure to the British public, as highly valued BBC light ‘entertainers’.
I can think of nothing worse that could assail the values of a major institution, than to fail to prevent abuse of the young within the ambit of its administration, by prominent people the institution assiduously contracts and promotes, and over a very long period of time: not even the Bashir disaster equates, but it provides a later and dreadful warning, since aspects or implications of both failures (Savile and Bashir) were unfolding at the same time. What the Bashir saga, in the context of Savile and Hall (and other failures), actually reveals is what they have in common: the endemic culture of the BBC has a resilient capacity to survive unscathed, and unchanged; robust enough to dispel even warnings from staff or official Reports.
Consider the internal context to the failure of BBC culture in the Bashir affair. The highly experienced BBC Panorama reporter Tom Mangold has pointed out that he attempted to ‘whistleblow’ on the Bashir affair to his editor; and was rewarded by being accused of jealousy (of Bashir), and lost his Panorama role after over twenty years service. More tellingly, Mangold emphasised that all BBC journalists are surrounded by a raft of Producers and other folds of management to direct and manage the journalist’s activity which management directs, and for which they are responsible: not least to ensure the protocols are in place to ensure there is no rogue journalism. Bashir, a relatively junior reporter (Lord Hall actually described Bashir, after interviewing him as ‘out of his depth’). Mangold appears at some loss to comprehend the nature of the BBC narrative of the matter, in which Bashir is able to proceed as if operating virtually in an entirely solo, unmanaged environment (Mangold interview, BBC Radio Scotland, ‘Drivetime’, 25th May, 2021 around 5.30pm).
Mangold is extensively referenced in the Dyson Investigation (Dyson Report, p.59 and ff.), and although Dyson differs in very significant respects to some of Mangold’s conclusions (especially on a ‘cover-up’) he presents Mangold’s manifest efforts to challenge the conventional BBC wisdom on the Bashir interview, and to pursue vigorously what he believed was wrong; and at some cost. Lord Dyson makes this summary statement about the BBC management and its later investigation of the Bashir affair: “Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark by (i) covering up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview; and (ii) failing to mention Mr Bashir’s activities or the BBC investigations of them on any news programme.” (Dyson, p.5). In his detailed discussion of these investigations, which were carried out by Lord Hall (Director General of the BBC) and Anne Sloman (Head of Weekly Programmes in BBC News and Current Affairs), Lord Dyson believes the BBC was evasive to enquiries from the Press about how Bashir obtained the interview with the Princess: “I am not persuaded by the attempts that have been made in this Investigation to justify the evasive responses that were given to the questions by the press.” (Dyson, p.122). The Hall-Sloman Report was sent to Lord Birt (former Director General of the BBC), who commissioned it (Dyson, p.101). Dyson rejects many of the conclusions drawn by Lord Birt in his own conclusions, supporting the Hall-Sloman Report (Dyson, p.101-115).
It is noticeable that Lord Dyson refers to the “hallmark” integrity and transparency of the BBC more than once in his investigation; in fact no less than four times, notably in a closing peroration (Dyson, p.5, p.121, p.123, p.127). It is his last word in the text. It is perhaps worth mentioning here that I could find not a single reference in Dyson to Dame Janet Smith’s Savile Report for the BBC, of 2016. Perhaps I missed it, and it may well be that he did not think it relevant to the Bashir affair, which was quite different in so many respects; nevertheless in repeatedly using the potent term “hallmark” in conjunction with transparency and integrity, when certain broader aspects of BBC management and cultural failure were under scrutiny in the relatively recent Savile Report, it may have proved useful to access or reference Dame Janet Smith’s Report, at least as a ‘touchstone’ for good practice in a crisis of integrity: after all, what are such reports as Savile for, once the media dust has settled, if not to scrutinise in recurring times of crisis, to observe and check if appropriate management lessons have been learned, and the sense and wisdom offered by such reports has indeed been absorbed into the ‘culture’ of the BBC? Even if not germane to the matter directly to hand, such studies go to the institution’s claim to have changed both personnel and its practices (as apologists for the BBC over Bashir have claimed), and its execution of the claim in another high profile case. I could not find a single direct reference to “culture” either, in Lord Dyson’s Investigation, although the ‘hallmarks’ to which Dyson refers, may reasonably be considered to be the hallmarks of the BBC’s ‘culture’. We value a hallmark not for itself but as an authentication for what it represents, the object that is hallmarked; and here it is difficult to avoid the term ‘culture’ for something as elusive as the imponderable institutional glue that binds ‘BBC values’ into its operations; a ‘culture’ which it is especially important to seek out and lay bare, when nobody anywhere in the organisation of the BBC is found to have been responsible for any of the failures in the Savile or the Bashir disasters.
Dame Janet Smith’s Report in 2016 tackled the argument that all the salient events were a long time ago, and no longer apply to the contemporary BBC, an argument that has been given wide circulation by BBC apologists after Bashir: “The events which Dame Linda [Dobbs, who wrote 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 of relevance for the BBC today see p.31-38, para.74-93).
Dame Janet Smith emphasises “culture” as a critical factor in the events surrounding Savile: indeed the BBC’s “culture and practices” provide the sub-text to the Report’s title. It is central; I found the word ‘culture’ used 48 times throughout the Report, both as headings and text. Culture, it seems to me, goes to the root of the matter. Dame Janet Smith states in her long Summary: “First and most important there was, during the period covered by the Savile investigation, a culture within the BBC which made it difficult to complain or to say anything to management which might ‘rock the boat’. There were several facets to this culture” (Summary, Vol.1, ’The Culture of Not Complaining’; para.49, p.18). Thus: “The strong sense of loyalty to a programme could hinder the sharing of information or concerns” (Summary, Vol.1, ‘The Culture of Not Complaining’; para.53, p.19). In addition: “there was a culture of not complaining about anything. The culture of not complaining about a member of the Talent was even stronger. Members of the Talent, such as Savile, were to a real degree, protected from complaint. The first reason for this is because of a deference or even adulation which was, and still can be, accorded to celebrity in our society. The second reason was because of the attitude within the BBC towards the Talent. The evidence I heard suggested that the Talent was treated with kid gloves and rarely challenged. An example of this is the attitude of C51’s supervisor when he was told that Savile had sexually assaulted C51 (see paragraphs 5.254-5.255 of my Report). His immediate reply was ‘Keep your mouth shut, he is a VIP’” (Summary, Vol.1, ‘The Culture of Not Complaining about the Talent’; para.54, p.19-20). The management structure was inadequate: “The management structure of the BBC did not facilitate the making of complaints or the raising of concerns” (Summary, Vol.1, ‘The Lack of Any Suitable Route for the Making of Complaints’; para.56, p.20).
Some changes to complaints procedures since the 1990s were noted: “The GoodCorporation report says that the BBC has put in place a whistleblowing policy that provides a channel for anyone inside the Corporation to raise a serious concern, which ensures that it will be investigated impartially and will be brought to the attention of senior management” (Summary, Vol.1, ‘The Lack of Any Suitable Route for the Making of Complaints’; extract, para.58, p.21). But this acknowledgement was qualified: “In short, although, according to GoodCorporation, much progress has been made and there is evidence of genuine commitment by the BBC, there remains work to be done” (Summary, Vol.1, ‘The Lack of Any Suitable Route for the Making of Complaints’; extract, para.59, p.21). Other features of the culture of not complaining Dame Janet Smith describes as a male-oriented “Macho Culture” (Summary, Vol.1, para.64, p.23). Dame Janet Smith also makes a legalistic distinction, by designating BBC ‘knowledge’ as beginning at Head of Department level. Below that level the BBC, for the purposes of Dame Janet Smith’s Report (as I understand it) has no knowledge, whether or not members of staff below that level know something.
Most striking in the broader context of BBC culture as capturing and wholly enveloping the institution is this conclusion drawn by Dame Janet Smith: “[T]he hierarchical nature of [the BBC] management structure should be re-examined. I think that the aim must be a culture in which management is respected but not feared. I was particularly disturbed by the evidence heard by both the Respect at Work Review and me 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. The commitment of managers to these principles should be tested through appraisal and feedback processes” (Summary, Vol.1, ‘My Recommendations’, para.88, p.32). It seems to me that this observation that; “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” (my emphasis in bold); are remarks of significance, which resonate down from Dame Janet Smith in 2016, and on into the Dyson Report in 2021.
Allow me to close this section on the Dame Janet Smith Report with her presentation of evidence that was so horrifying in its implications, at least to me; that I find the BBC culture that could create the possibility of such a calamity to arise (noting it was not a unique event in terms of offering identifiable warnings of what was going on: see also para.10, p.4; or ‘Yorkshire Speakeasy’ recording, p.144), but worse – for nobody to appear to notice, then or later, or link the trail of evidence, allowing Savile’s misdeeds to go on for a long time, and only adequately to be revealed after his death: “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)”.
Apologists for the BBC have been quick, post-Savile and Hall, or even ex-post the Bashir Interview affair, to claim that the BBC is so large, and has so many good people producing myriad good programming, that it cannot in fairness be caught by one bad apple, or by management flaws. We are invited to look somewhere else, at the bulk of the programmes, including Children’s programmes to excuse catastrophic failure. I shall pass over that such arguments merely beg the question. The test is whether the institution can be trusted not to fail on such a scale, or again. Such a test requires that the good people act appropriately if they find themselves faced with the circumstances, or even more – similar circumstances, whether similar in kind, or more likely, similar in scale; that they are able to act, that they do act; even if the ‘bad apples’, or the management system itself has failed; as it had failed egregiously, not once but twice.
Dame Janet Smith reported on the Savile affair in January-February, 2016. By 2016 we can say that staff are still afraid to complain. The BBC, quite extraordinarily re-hired Martin Bashir as Religious Affairs Correspondent in September, 2016. The BBC Media Centre website headline used for the announcement was “Martin’s track record in enterprising journalism is well known and respected in the industry and amongst our audiences”. Bashir resigned only in 2021. Time and again we see within the BBC a long, long lead time before historic failures in the culture are adequately addressed. Then, as now we are told it was all a long time ago, and the BBC has changed. We have heard it all before. It is becoming Groundhog Day at the BBC: the Bashir enquiry was in 1996. Bashir was re-hired in 2016, the very year of the Dame Janet Smith Report on Saville (and Dobbs on Stuart Hall), which had highlighted issues surrounding the general BBC ‘culture’ in 2016 (see above), and the capacity to complain. Bashir resigned as Religious Affairs Editor only in 2021; perhaps the most ironic job title in broadcasting history.
There are good people in the BBC, but whether it is the 1970s or 1980s, or 1990s, or now, what can good people do? What do they do? Do they stand up and take the difficult road, or is there a presumption of such unchallengeable confidence in the BBC’s natural authority that people are inclined obediently to follow closely the BBC standard, learned culture of deference to the hierarchy, or to follow a line of least resistance to conventional wisdom, or just to ‘shut up’ altogether? Clearly Dame Janet Smith had reservations about the extent of reform of the BBC culture in 2016. Some staff clearly did stand up and challenge the culture; some were experienced journalists who knew how to handle tough situations, like Tom Mangold. What happened? He was accused of jealousy and ignored. Mathias Weissler, the Graphic Designer, who’s work was inappropriately used by Bashir, ‘blew the whistle’ as soon as he realised what had happened; that his work was being misused. What happened to Weissler? He was never used by the BBC again (see Dyson Report, excerpt from Lord Hall’s report to Lord Birt on a decision he made; para.,228, p.92). Tim Gardam produced a critical and decisive report for the Director General (Hall) on Bashir that identified his serious failures; but it has curiously been lost, and the revelations on Bashir on which the Dyson Report has relied, appears to have depended significantly on Gardam fortuitously having kept a hand-written copy of his report for posterity to review now (Dyson, Annexe 3, pp.30-41: see also, discussion by John Nicholson MP, Parliamentary Select Committee, referenced below).
The answer is that ‘good people’ are not enough if the BBC culture is itself so robustly constructed it defeats all their efforts. The Westminster Parliamentary Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has now held a public meeting with senior BBC officials of past and present (Tuesday, 15th June, 2021), here: https://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/e29e6c8d-6ec4-4a5a-92d6-d22bccd92839, examining witnesses from the BBC consisting of two past Director Generals directly involved, at some stage in the Bashir affair (Lord Birt and Lord Hall); the current Director General, Tim Davie and the current Chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp. The scale of the inadequacy of the BBC to fix the problem, over a long period of time is forensically revealed over around four hours of interrogation. It is required viewing. At least three members of the Select Committee were MPs who at one time or other worked in the BBC and who clearly understood the BBC culture very well; especially as experienced journalists, and their manifest scepticism and even anger at the standards of senior management hands-on involvement, of rigorous, searching examination of the facts in an issue of great moment within the BBC, requiring rules of research and evidence that they clearly believed had always been expected of them in the BBC, but somehow seemed dispensable for senior management, was palpable.
In particular the searching, sceptical questions put to the BBC witnesses by the Select Committee Chairman, Julian Knight MP; by Giles Watling MP, who picks up the critically important but too often overlooked failure of the BBC to introduce sufficiently robust procedural or cultural reforms post-Saville that he would have expected to be in place, more robustly to handle the Bashir crisis. Lord Hall emphasised numerous times that he had returned to the BBC as Director General specifically to institute reforms in the context of the unfolding Saville crisis. John Nicholson MP was notable for the forensic examination of all three Director Generals, probing the inadequate response of the BBC to the Bashir crisis and the facts, and both the importance of the Gardam report and its elusive place in the story. Nicholson also effectively repeated the Tom Mangold argument, about the layers of supervision surrounding BBC journalists, that makes the management failures in the Bashir case so inexplicable to insiders; a degree of micro-management he attributed in his period at the BBC to the assiduous supervisory structure devised by Lord Birt. In addition, at the most basic level of thorough journalism, there seemed to be incomprehensibility among the past journalist-BBC MPs on the Select Committee, that nobody within the BBC seemed aware of Bashir’s past failings, either in the BBC or subsequently in the US. It is well to remember here that the BBC must represent by far the largest, most extensively resourced news-journalism operation in Britain, with many highly experienced, hardened journalists; yet according to senior executives it was comprehensively duped over twenty-five years by a single, lone journalist; according to the MPs, in spite of BBC management being in a position quite easily to examine or discover the facts with modest effort; on some occasions (according to Select Committee MP-journalists) by making a single phone call, but certainly by trawling the world of journalism outside the BBC, and in the USA where Bashir had worked, and whose controversial reputation was known.
The BBC has now hastily implemented an investigation into the rehiring of Martin Bashir in 2016. It was undertaken by Ken MacQuarrie, whose background is senior BBC management. It is here: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/reports/reports/martin-bashir-appointment-review.pdf. After all the problems with issues over such matters as the nature of investigations and of evidence, it is remarkable that the BBC should believe it is appropriate to decide that it was good procedure to call on a BBC insider to carry out another investigation of the BBC, instead of appointing a demonstrably, entirely independent investigator to carry out the investigation. The MacQaurrie Report is 16 pages, and was produced in a couple of weeks (later than initially trailed): but compare Dyson, 127 pages for the Report alone, plus four separate, lengthy Annexes, and almost six months to produce. It is not a criticism of MacQuarrie’s independence to express surprise that the decision was made not to appoint a third-party investigator; especially in the light of Lord Dyson’s Report, which was written by a former judge, presumably for the sake of the optics of transparent independence his appointment provided.
It is noteworthy that the BBC announced publication of the MacQuarrie Report with this headline “Martin Bashir: No evidence journalist rehired as cover-up – BBC report” (BBC website, Francesca Gillett). In fact I could find no direct reference to a “cover-up” in the MacQuarrie Report Terms of Reference: “My Terms of Reference were in the following terms: ‘A review to establish the facts around the decision by the BBC to appoint Martin Bashir as Religious Affairs Correspondent in September 2016 and the subsequent re-grading of the role to Religion Editor in 2018’ (MacQuarrie Report, p.1, Para., 3). Notice here that Bashir was no only re-hired, but later re-graded. McQuarrie however, does conclude there was no cover-up (MacQuarrie Report, p.15, Para., 47). The question to be asked, however may better be posed in terms of the need for an entirely independent investigator, as a matter of institutional process and justice; and close questioning of the rigour or extent of the checks actually carried out on Bashir within the BBC, before rehiring him. MacQuarrie does acknowledge weaknesses in the appointment process (MacQuarrie Report, p.7-8, Para., 27), but does not see them as fatal (p.8-10, Para.,28-31). Julian Knight MP of the DCMS Select Committee, however provided a robust dismissal of the MacQuarrie Report which is even quoted by the Francesca Gillett BBC piece (above) on the MacQuarrie Report: “Julian Knight, the MP who chairs the Commons culture committee, said it was concerned by the report, asking: ‘Where was the due diligence?’. Mr Knight said: ‘Senior members of the BBC knew [at the time of rehire] that Bashir had lied about the use of faked bank statements to gain access to Princess Diana’”.
It may be argued that the line I am following here must be informed by neoliberal, free market broadcasting ideology, because the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Report on ‘The Future of Public Service Broadcasting’, Chaired by Julian Knight MP was hostile to the current BBC funding model; here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmcumeds/156/15602.htm (published 25th March, 20121). Knight said this when that Report was published: “It’s clear that the BBC TV licence fee has a limited shelf life in a digital media landscape. However, the Government has missed the boat to reform it. Instead of coming up with a workable alternative, it has sealed its own fate through a failure to develop a broadband infrastructure that would allow serious consideration of other means to fund the BBC.
Not only that, but the Government is effectively allowing the BBC to hemorrhage funds through non-payment of the licence fee as a result of continued speculation over decriminalisation of licence-fee evasion, a situation it must bring to an end.
To enable public service broadcasters to compete in a digital world, Ministers must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date. It’s a question of prominence – too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms with content that’s hard to find or isn’t branded.” (DCMS Report, 25th March, 2021). This reads more as an attack on the Government for leaving the BBC without a satisfactory funding model in the digital age, rather than an attack on Public service Broadcasting.
Look closer at what the Conservative Government has actually proposed for the BBC; not loss of its Charter. It proposes reform. Think about that. This is the Golden Opportunity for Conservatives to deliver the neoliberal ’coup de grace’ to public service broadcasting: but it has been spurned. Reform is proposed instead; why? No neoliberal, Conservative Government actually wants to destroy the BBC. Political Parties are already imprisoned by a (so-called) free-market media, owned by oligarchs and billionaires. The “Agenda” which dominates the ‘News’ is not written by the BBC, nor is it written by the public, and only intermittently by events; indeed the BBC rather watches for a lead on the nature of the “Agenda” which is set by a complex network of media outside the BBC, because it cannot afford to be seen to set the agenda itself, and is only rarely and contingently able to do so; so the BBC depends, largely on an oligarchic press, run by neoliberal ideologues to justify its participation in an Agenda created less by ‘reality’, but rather a culture established principally by oligarchic neoliberals, by the current Government’s political PR tactics and the ‘spin’ composed to advance whatever policy they wish to promote, or political blunder they wish to defend or obfuscate, or by whatever political opposition manages to seize some of the oxygen of media publicity. The Conservative government does not really wish to destroy the BBC, that is not the purpose of the enterprise, and it never did desire to end the Charter (mere ideological sloganising); it wants to control the BBC’s output, to produce a biddable, lapdog BBC; that solution has always provided a much better political outcome for the Conservative Party than terminating the Charter could ever offer, because then the Party would be even more extensively delivered into the hands of Press-Media oligarchs. Even Margaret Thatcher’s Peacock Committee (1986) did not propose abolishing the BBC (only proposing privatising Radio 1 an 2), or even of abandoning the licence fee. That would never do.
The objections to the BBC model I am presenting, however are not about the licence fee; but rather – and far, far more important – a matter of fundamental human values: of the survival of the adherence some, roughly understood, but basic, usable, universalizable code of distributive justice, so that individuals under pressure are able to resist the capacity of an institutional culture simply to invoke privileged rules of supererogation. The sustained failure of the BBC, its management, process and structure to show that the public may reasonably place unquestioning faith in what we may term the BBC’s ‘institutional culture’, can no longer continue to be denied. I doubt if any other British institution could withstand both a Saville and Bashir disaster, and nevertheless expect to retain a uniquely privileged Charter granted by Parliament. The BBC simply cannot claim to have lived up to the values it purports to represent.
Within the BBC I do not doubt that there are good people who intend to uphold the values to which the BBC claims it subscribes; but the BBC’s good people have clearly and constantly been defeated in their vigorous, and sometimes personally costly attempts to challenge the powerful latent culture of the BBC, in different circumstances, at different times, but nevertheless – defeated. indeed so powerful is that culture, that nobody is responsible for it. It stands above mere human power, because no matter how dreadful the failure, nobody in senior management is ever responsible – for anything. The most repeated claim of senior management in the Select Committee was that the MPs did not understand how big the BBC institution was; carrying the implication that the management could not be expected to be aware of all these tangled problems that were happening somewhere else, and of which they were ignorant and could do little about. Very well, if personal responsibility at the top counts for so little in the operation of the institution, then even more onus rests on the ‘culture’ of the institution on which management and control of everything must depend. There is nowhere else for responsibility to rest; to protest against even that is to protest against all responsibility; and is, in effect to invoke anarchy. The excuses of senior management, which have been acknowledged – because nobody has been found responsible in the BBC for any failings at all, outside the miscreants themselves – cannot be transformed into an excuse to pardon the BBC itself and its culture; for that requires that neither the management nor the culture is responsible for anything of real, permanent importance at all. What we are being told by the BBC is effectively that the institution is uniquely beyond the reach of responsibility, for anything that happens.
Notice that this means we must therefore see this as primarily a matter of ‘culture’, not just because that is what the senior management itself must believe in exonerating themselves; but because the BBC senior management is ever changing over time and the events spanned decades; but it is the BBC culture alone that clearly goes on, and on, indomitable and indefatigable (and to which the BBC implicitly always refers whenever it promotes its own values). We can see this important reference to ‘culture’ in Dame Janet Smith’s Report; pointing out that staff were still afraid to complain (remember – this was as late as 2016). ‘Culture’ represents something very fundamental to the nature of any Institution, especially in long established, firmly rooted and powerful institutions like the BBC. The Select Committee hearing manifested something of the nature of the culture, although only Lord Hall on one occasion used the specific word ‘culture’; at least that I noted.
Ofcom replaced the BBC Trust as Regulator. Only following publication of the Dyson Report have we discovered a curious illustration of how regulation formation actually works for an institution with the special privileges of the BBC. Suddenly Tim Sutor, a member of Ofcom has resigned, by “mutual agreement”, soon after the publication of the Dyson Report (from a report in the Daily Mail website, 22nd May, 2021). Sutor was an ex-BBC executive who, according to the Daily Mail report had even been directly involved in the now much criticised BBC Bashir investigation of 1996, including interviewing Martin Bashir. Justice, it is often said, more in the breach than the observance; must not only be done but seen to be done. We need not doubt the independence of Mr Sutor to object to the principles of a system in which BBC ‘insiders’ simply turn up within the BBC regulator.
The argument is made that there are many ‘good people’ within the BBC, who are being tarnished by matters over which they had no control. This is precisely the point; such effect that they have, has utterly failed. They could not withstand the BBC culture. They were ignored, deflected or they did not stand up; in any case they were not the answer. They did not fix the problem or avoid being side-lined. Overwhelmed or sidelined is neither here no there; the culture won, relentlessly marching on, over, round or simply through the opposition within. This speaks to a deep institutional failure. There is no easy answer; no trick, no smooth urbanity that erases the totality of the institutional failure. This should not be confused with a neoliberal, free market argument to destroy the BBC to allow unfettered access of ‘market values’ to turn the media into a neoliberal political casino. There can be merit in public service broadcasting, and just as the BBC was set up in the 1920s as a public service; there is nothing to stop this being done now. Indeed an independent Scotland represents an opportunity to create a public service broadcaster within a more robust and independent constitutional framework. Nobody ever said it was easy, but that does not justify the status quo. The BBC is simply a bad example of the public service broadcast species, because its merits (and its constant repetition of extravagant, self-congratulatory claims to standards it has clearly and repeatedly failed to maintain) do not absolve its unforgivable fall from grace. I believe it is beyond redemption, and it should be a matter of judgement and wisdom to start again; but not from ‘there’.