June 26 2004
BBC staff don't need a college of contritionSimon Jenkins
THERE IS nothing like the BBC. Only the dear, elephantine, loveable, absurd corporation could soar beyond self-importance to the ionosphere of parody. When organisations make mistakes they mostly apologise and discipline staff. What went wrong gets changed. Not so the BBC. It founds a university. I had hoped to forget the Gilligan affair. The public has forgotten it. Tony Blair has forgotten it. Alastair Campbell pretends to forget it. But the BBC never forgets. It wallows in the bureaucracy of guilt.
This week the corporation had a new boss, Mark Thompson. He was clearly eager to show continuity in contrition with his predecessor, Greg Dyke. He warned his 28,000 staff that they were “spiky, defensive and arrogant” but he loved them none the less. So, thanks to Andrew Gilligan, the 7,000 journalists among them will have compulsory time off for “retraining” in a residential home somewhere in the country. It will cost a fortune.
Like Henry II after the death of Becket, the BBC means to squeeze the Gilligan affair for all it is worth. In his honour, or his shame, journalists will be taught the true faith and pray for the souls of departed directors-general. The likes of John Simpson and Andrew Marr will study “the lessons of Gilligan” over chardonnay and canapés. Sponsors will endow a Greg Dyke Chair of Tearful Regret and a Gavyn Davies Readership in Resignation Studies. There will be PhDs in Gilligan’s breakfast routine. Classes will be held in obsequiousness and Pecksniffery and an MA in “being half-nice” to Downing Street. Each morning students will turn their prayer mats to Portland Place and recite: “God grant us a hefty licence fee.”
The new college is proposed by a committee of BBC great and good, of whom there seems to be an inexhaustible supply. They were asked, for the umpteenth time, to consider the lessons of the Hutton report. This was even though the BBC had rejected Hutton’s criticisms, in my view justifiably. There was every reason for closing a few loopholes and shutting up.
Instead there have been meetings, drafts, awaydays. Mr Thompson is a child of the BBC and an instinctive empire builder. No matter that London is bursting with media and broadcasting courses. Within days of arriving he has already added three extra boards to his management board. With a BBC university under his belt, I wonder how soon he will feel the need of a BBC airline, a BBC bank and a BBC public school.
Corporation journalists are to be given 1980s ephemera called mission statements. These childlike platitudes indicate that an organistion has no clear direction and wants only to be all things to all mankind. British civil servants are supposed to carry at all times a Blair mission card telling them “to help make the UK a better place for everyone to live in, and support its success in the world.”
The BBC has decided that its helpless journalists need “five core values”. These are said to be accuracy, public interest, impartiality, independence and accountability. Nobody could object, of course, but then the point of mission statements is to be beyond objection. They are pure corporate jobsworth. Yet why has the BBC omitted such standbys as inclusiveness, partnership, outreach, ethnic minority and paedophile awareness? What has it against the disabled? Why no Welsh? Why are there only five values, or could the committee not remove its other mitten?
As a reaction to Hutton this is drivel. I never believed that Mr Gilligan’s faults merited a departure, let alone a college of atonement. When Downing Street is deep in the muck, conspiring mendacity in the cause of illegality, its protest over one journalist’s misdemeanour calls to mind blackened pots and kettles. As for blaming the media for David Kelly’s death, that remains outrageous. The BBC was robust at the time. Now it seems caught by the same heated self-regard as its tormentor, Alastair Campbell.
It was BBC managers, not journalists, who dumbed down news presentation and imported the American two-way interview that caused this trouble. They wanted to inject “reporter personality” into news stories, a dangerous and irritating practice not yet discontinued. It is the BBC management, not its journalists, that needs lectures in public interest broadcasting and independence.
This is what happens when any organisation gets too rich and too big. Money is splurged not on broadcasting but on getting in the way of broadcasting. Corporate energies wander off into buildings and burble. What BBC apparatchiks derisively call “the talent” — reporters, writers, presenters, directors — has recently watched its budgets butchered while glittering shrines to management rise over White City and Portland Place. The BBC motif should be a crane.
The corporation’s reputation as a public broadcaster is nowadays based largely on its radio stations and news journalism. Yet these are what the Government asked Hutton to attack, and what the BBC declares most in need of Maoist “re-education”. If I were a BBC journalist I would be livid. The corporation hierarchs see no need of a college of contrition for their atrocious television.
It is hard to move about town these days without stumbling over somebody who has been asked by someone to look at the future of the BBC. As both a BBC consumer and a contributor, I share the zest to play that game. My problem is that, unlike Mr Thompson, I regard BBC journalists as some of the best in Britain. Their chief professional incubus is the tier upon tier of colonels to whom they are ceaselessly accountable. In the aftermath of Gilligan it was impossible to discover which deputy-executive-assistant-associate of which board, directorate or committee was responsible for what.
I regard two statements as truisms. The first is that the BBC is a cultural institution certainly worth preserving into the age of digital multichannels. The second is that the BBC has no worse enemy than itself. It has grown so boorish and monopolistic as to threaten its own survival. Every new director-general claims to want to cut overheads and waste. Like ministers cutting red tape, they never do. They merely “spend their way out of trouble”. Big organisations never trim their overheads. Their officials breed like Orks. They are only eliminated when the Ring of All Rings splits the Earth and they are swallowed whole.
It would be a tragedy if this happened to the Beeb. In my view it would be wrong even for it to fall under the new and ludicrously overblown Ofcom. Yet the BBC has no plan B. Its strategy has always been to challenge its critics to accept its elephantine ambition, or stand accused of wanting it smashed “and then you’ll be sorry”. It holds that public service broadcasting in Britain can only ever be what the BBC decides. This is the measure of its arrogance.
The BBC already has office blocks, magazines, orchestras, theatres, studios, clinics, retail outlets, commercial activities galore. Now it wants a college to punish its staff for embarrassing Mr Blair. If there were anything seriously wrong with BBC news, I would not listen to it every day of my life. The truth is that of all its activities, BBC reporting is in a class of its own. In the case of the Gilligan affair it drew blood. It offered a first inkling of what history will place among Downing Street’s most disreputable incidents. The BBC took a beating for its pains, but it honoured journalism’s first duty, to name the guilty men.
So to hell with mission statements, core values, review committees and residential colleges. Put the money on the ground. Journalism can never have too many reporters with nifty fingers and a nose for a scoop. The Government failed to silence the BBC on that lethal morning a year ago. God forbid a self-strangulating BBC should do the Government’s job for it now.