Why am I doing this? What is the motivation for going back over events at the BBC when it is no longer part of my daily life? The BBC’s own answer is that I am a disgruntled ex-employee whose opinions can be discounted as bitter and vengeful. That is how all former staff who become critics are regarded and dismissed. It is a simple, all-embracing answer to everything that is said that managers don’t like and means they can avoid introspection and doubt.
Well I am certainly resentful about the way the BBC is run and how some decisions impacted on myself. But I like to think the reason for sharing that more widely is my belief that the licence-fee payers have a right to hear what staff think, not just what managers say they think. My approach is governed not by a hierarchical management structure to which I only ever offered perfunctory allegiance but by a broadcaster’s obligation to the public. This, after all, is public service broadcasting. It is made for the public by a publicly accountable organisation using public money.
Why then does it place on staff a contractual obligation not to speak out about its internal affairs? This policy is being revisited as more claims of bullying have emerged but I think this needs to go further to allow all staff access to a complaints blog on the BBC website in which they can air their views on any aspect of BBC business. The only area I would protect would be commercial and personal contract details.
Virtually any statement by a staff member, and certainly articles, columns or letters to the press, can be construed as being against the interests of the BBC. That is clearly ridiculous and, I argue, counter-productive. Did it do the BBC any harm when journalists spoke up about the reports on Jimmy Savile being dropped? This case provides an interesting insight as of course it did do the corporate BBC harm, but it did the public a service and boosted the reputation of the journalists. And in there can be seen the real reason why I think the BBC perseveres with an out-dated rule of omerta on staff. It keeps a lid on discontent and saves managers from public scrutiny. When a former senior staff member wrote to the Scotsman to criticise some aspect the BBC of which he had inside knowledge, an existing news department executive actually asked out loud: “Isn’t that covered by the Official Secrets Act!”
It is in this climate of infallibility that mistakes are made, compounded and repeated. All managements are self-protecting entities, carefully massaging here, neatly sidestepping there and where is the real oversight on the public’s behalf? In the hands of the BBC Trust, of course…an organisation which, even when it finds against the BBC as it regularly does, has no sanction. Who’s afraid of a regime with no penalty to impose?
I argue that the distrust felt by many of the public would be assuaged by hearing directly from staff the difficulties and conflicts that arise in an important public organisation. The first position of every management when trouble arises is denial. They say: There is no problem. That changes to: There is only a small problem. Then: We can deal with it…nothing to worry about. That quickly changes to: Oh shit…Who can we blame!
This culture of internal secrecy extended to obliging staff leaving with redundancy deals after a dispute to sign a condition that they wouldn’t speak out about their experience after they’d left. In my view this is a breach of civil rights of the individual. And of course, it also throws a blanket over the responsibility of the BBC itself.
Internal troublemakers do cause problems but in my experience nearly everybody in the BBC has its best interests at heart. Staff have no inclination to be vexatious and can offer insights into the day-to-day work of programme-making that no manager can match. Why should any executive feel threatened by having their staff use a forum to give their views freely to the people who pay for the service? How many mistakes in programme changes, scheduling or use of technology could be avoided by publicising the ideas and insights of the staff who make it all work?
The reason they feel threatened I think is lack of confidence. Only people unsure of themselves and unable to deal constructively with criticism shy away from scrutiny and debate. This lack of confidence has been revealed to me on occasions when I inadvertently said “the wrong thing” about the BBC on air. The reaction of two different Heads of News was rapid and robust. Once, when we were wrestling with new technology during a live programme, there were so many screw-ups I decided it was a courtesy to the listeners to explain the truth – that we were fighting the computers which had just been installed to replace paper copy. The then Head of News took me aside and explained that no matter what was happening on air, I was never to imply criticism of BBC management to the listeners. The reputation of management was to be kept sacrosanct while the reputation of broadcasters stumbling on air didn’t matter, and as for the listening public…
I stopped blogging for the BBC when the Head of Radio objected to a post I wrote about the new Saturday Good Morning Scotland. I wrote that all new programmes make some grandiose claim to fame but we wouldn’t do that. We would, I said, simply do our best with the resources we had and the listener would get our best efforts. It didn’t exactly ring with optimism, I’ll grant you, but to the executives it had the smack of someone disagreeing with management decisions to get rid of the previous programme Newsweek over which there was widespread complaint. I refused to be censored by a manager and declined to re-write my blog. I opted to quit blogging altogether rather than be prevented from expressing my – largely uncontroversial – view by a management afraid of even mild criticism.
The truth is that the BBC talks about transparency and accountability and no doubt as individuals they agree with both. But often the reality simply doesn’t match up. Statements made to staff during the recent round job cuts were not just ill-informed, they were mendacious and designed to mislead. They were the kind of propaganda used in the private sector by managements with no wider public responsibility nor history of respect. The woman who issued them, Lucy Adams, was later accused by MPs of lying when they investigated BBC executives being overpaid in redundancy deals.
How transparent was the pension slush fund operate by and for the BBC executive board? While they cut pensions for 19,000 staff, the senior managers kept an undisclosed pot for themselves and doled themselves top-ups to their already mountainous pensions.
Sometime ago…I don’t know exactly when…something changed in the BBC. It lost the capricious, carefree, mildly incompetent air and the sense that nothing was impossible because we had the will and the skill to make it happen. It became instead centralised, overbearing, intolerant and dictatorial to staff. It stopped trusting its own people and mid-level executives with indeterminate roles found one by bossing programme-makers. Budgets, not content, became king. People were always the most important aspect of the corporation but that gave way to process so that how something was done became more important that what was done. Many of us lost at least some of our pride and it’s astonishing how quickly the oxygen that breathes life into a community of people can be cut off. The latest BBC Scotland staff survey reveals the awful truth.
I don’t buy the critique that the BBC is finished or that the licence fee should be stopped. But I think the existing monolithic structure is finished and the management must be stopped – stopped from treating it like a private company in which they hold all the power like company directors while the staff are discounted. The staff are the lifeblood of the BBC and need to be brought back to the centre of decision-making, not patronised by made-up consultation exercises and chased out the door to make cuts that could have been managed with intelligence rather than brute force. The first step should be to free staff to speak openly about their experience and begin the business of turning around the ethos of the BBC and bring it back into alignment with the society it serves. That is my motivation.