Monday, 12 November 2012

Eight questions about the BBC crisis

1. Q. Can the BBC recover from this crisis?

A. Yes, probably, but that doesn't alter the fact that the quality of its journalism is declining, and has been for some time, in my view. That is probably due at least in part to budget cuts. Quality journalism costs money. They have clearly got rid of too many experienced journalists for comfort. They maybe ought to have ring-fenced the news and current affairs budget and instead made bigger cuts in the excessive layers of management bureaucracy, which have obviously burgeoned over the years, as happens in all large organisations (see Parkinson's Law). There are too many bean-counters and, as in most aspects of life today, the bean-counters have too much say. David Dimbleby was good on this point this morning in his interview with John Humphrys on the Today programme, as also on the subject of ridiculous management mumbo-jumbo. Private Eye has been banging on about that practically every fortnight for many years (see "Birtspeak 2.0"). Unfortunately, though it produces some good satirical programmes from time to time, the BBC is immune to satire about itself.

2. Q. How is morale at the BBC?

A. A statement just out from the NUJ says: "Morale is already at an all-time low". Ha ha ha ha! Every BBC person I have ever met has told me that morale was at an all-time low -- starting with my cousin in 1962, when he showed me round Bush House, where he was working as what was then called a Technical Operator. That's half a century ago. Morale is *always* at an all-time low.

3. Q. What went wrong at Newsnight?

A. My guesses:
(a) Budget cuts (see above).
(b) Experienced people too hastily "recused" because of the Savile affair.
(c) Inexperienced hacks too young to know that the incorrect McAlpine story has been around for many years and had already been gone into several times by different people and found to be completely without foundation, based as it was on mistaken identity. (It was a different McAlpine -- see this piece co-written by the excellent Bob Woffinden even though it appeared in the generally dreadful Mail On Sunday.) It was, indeed, a quite unforgivable lapse and to me an astonishing one.
(d) Clambering aboard the child-sex-abuse hysteria bandwagon in a panic, without paying enough attention to checking the details.

4. Q. What about the Jimmy Savile business?

A. I think it has all been rather overblown. Clearly the man was a nasty piece of work, but we ought to be sceptical about the individual allegations in the absence of detailed proof. As the McAlpine case neatly illustrates, you cannot just take the word of abuse victims as gospel. You have to investigate each case carefully. Some of them are mistaken or confused, some are deliberately lying, etc. In fact I am seriously worried about the extent to which many people seem to be in denial about the rather obvious fact that, even with the best will in the world, it is very easy to misremember things that happened (or didn't happen) decades ago.

5. Q. Yes, but what about the BBC's responsibility in the Savile case?

A. It seems to me preposterous to be trying in 2012 to apportion blame for alleged goings-on in the Top of the Pops studio in 1964. Was the general culture too permissive in those days? Maybe, but certainly not only at the BBC. Can anything be done about it now? No, of course not. What matters is that all sorts of procedures are nowadays in place (and I think have been for some time) to stop it happening again.

6. Q. Should the Director-General have resigned?

A. Perhaps not -- although I remain gobsmacked that he did not glance at the front pages of the serious national broadsheets every morning. I thought all important people did that in all spheres of life. Anyway, he's gone now and we are where we are.

7. Q. Should Chris Patten also resign?

A. Certainly not.

8. Q. What should politicians now be doing about all this?

A. They should all shut up and leave some space for the BBC leadership to sort things out. The same goes for the rest of the media, several of whom have an obvious vested interest in making trouble for the BBC and whose coverage of the affair is therefore highly suspect.

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