Saturday, February 23, 2013

BBC Management structure and The Jimmy Savile Scandal

I wrote previously about the Jimmy Savile scandal, and how a lax and complacent establishment allowed him to be effectively the nation's perverted "court jester" for forty years.
All those at the top of the system played their part in turning a blind eye to the well-known rumours of his perverted behaviour, but none more so than the BBC who originally hired him, and he used them as a conduit for his twisted and amoral narcissism, as well as a highly-effective shield against personal attacks to his well-honed saintly image.

It is therefore the BBC that has the most blame to fuelling his criminal behaviour. The long-running investigation into the BBC's complacency and incompetence has also brought into sharp focus the byzantine structure of the BBC itself, as well-remarked upon by Peter Oborne. His point is partly political, and that's not what I really want to go into here. I want to focus on the anachronistic and byzantine manner that the BBC is structured.

There is perhaps no other media organisation in the world structured like the BBC. It is held up as the "gold standard" for journalism and reportage around the world, as well as being the oldest such structure. The problem is that the BBC also knows about its gold standard image around the world, giving it a predisposition to arrogance, and therefore less likely to take easily to criticism. At the very least, its indecipherable management structure makes it hard to know where the line of accountability runs. And accountability is the key problem that has been displayed from the report into the Jimmy Savile scandal, with reams of evidence being effectively redacted as though the BBC were the media version of the KGB, as well as managers themselves not knowing their proper responsibilities. Which is precisely the point.

The BBC has been around since 1922. To put it into perspective, the Fascist takeover by Mussolini, the end of the Soviet Civil War, the rise of Ataturk in the Turkish Republic were all contemporary events to the BBC's founding.The BBC's raison d'etre was designed to reflect the psychology of the day. Created with noble intent as a media provider for the British Empire that was separate from government, it was effectively the "voice of the Empire", albeit one that spoke not from a government mouthpiece.
In this sense, although staffed by managers who were from the same "establishment" background as politicians, lawyers and the civil service (and effectively still is), it was given a large degree of independence, thus putting its managers in a privileged position unknown to any other country at the time (and still is today).

After designed to be ran by similarly-minded "establishment" figures given a large degree of independence, the structure of the BBC itself seemed to have been inspired by civil service thinking as well. First of all, was its revenue structure. The "licence fee" was the way that kept the BBC financed, and this never changed after other television stations (notably its original competitor ITV) were established. In many respects, the BBC's mentality and structure are more like that of a government than a corporation. The "licence fee" is effectively a tax on people who want to use the BBC services, albeit one that the real government has no effective control over.
The BBC refuses to use advertising, its most common reason being that it would damage quality of its production. The more likely reason is that it would then no longer be able to use the public as a cash cow, and would have to lobby for revenue from the private sector. The "quality" excuse is not longer valid: Channel Four has produced quality independent programming, reportage and news since its foundation thirty years ago, and it uses advertising like any other of the BBC's competitors. The BBC's stance on needing the licence free smacks of fear and arrogance.

The way the BBC is funded is therefore more reminiscent of a government than a private corporation. The way the BBC is structured internally is similarly reminiscent of a government rather than a private corporation. The structure of the BBC was originally conceived before the Second World War, when it was the "voice of the Empire". That structure has never fundamentally changed; conversely, since the end of empire and the rise of the postmodern era, it has mushroomed beyond all comprehension. As Peter Oborne pointed out is his article above, there are now nearly thirty senior managers in the BBC, some of them with titles that are more reminiscent of bloated central government department. With titles like "strategy", "planning", "operations", and so on, it makes the BBC look less like an identifiable government department and more like a Kafkaesque nightmare of bewildering proportions, where no-one really knows what each persons job is, who is truly responsible for what, and what questions to ask to who.
The structure at the BBC is rigidly hierarchical and bewilderingly impenetrable in equal measure, like a Soviet Central Committee in the Kremlin. This "Soviet style" of leadership and organisation may have been a subconscious design of the original founders (considering how many of the early establishment figures were closet Communist sympathisers, this wouldn't be surprising). Since that time, the organisation has therefore grown in accordance with its design, like an ever-expanding impenetrable web. The result of this, like any  inefficient and corrupt government that is not publicly accountable, is an environment perfect for covering up scandals and not dealing with problems when they occur; rather pressuring "whistle-blowers" to either be quiet or be dismissed.

It is precisely this sort of environment that allowed Jimmy Savile to thrive. The fact that those responsible for tolerating the cover-ups and mishandling scandals, like former head George Entwistle, are rewarded with fat pay-offs, is symptomatic of a broken system. Likewise is the redacting of potentially-incriminating evidence under "legal advice".
Until the BBC is forced to change the way it is financed, by getting rid of the licence fee, it will never be able to bring itself to look with open eyes at its broken system. Until the BBC is ran like a private media company like any other (or, inconceivably, funded directly by the government as a state-ran operator), it will never be able to run itself with real accountability.

The BBC is effectively ran like a "media government". Not in the sense that it has an unaccountable influence on government media policy, but in the sense that it is ran like a separate media "government", funded by us, but unaccountable to anyone but itself.
Clearly, this situation has become untenable.

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