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November 11, 2012



Apparently, the BBC is stuffed full with managers, many of whom will be speaking "Birt-Speak", a language closer to gobblededook, than to a recognisable natural language.

Despite these layers of management, control at the BBC seems to have failed. Ouchi identifies 3 organisational control mechanisms: markets, bureaucracies and clans. It appears the BBC has opted, incorrectly, for the bureaucratic control mechanism.

For investigative journalists, who should be highly educated and committed to uncovering truth, a clan control mechanism seems more appropriate. Such a control mechanism depends on shared values, beliefs and tradition. which amounts to self regulation, for its effectiveness. Such cultures exist and are effective in universities and probably in other research driven organisations too.

So it seems it may be the reforms so vigorously championed by John Birt that have caused the "crisis" at the BBC, not the alleged poor leadership of George Entwhistle, who has effectively been sacrificed on the altar of Birt's reforms.

I hope and pray that Patten is seeing the BBC's problem for what they are when he says it needs radical and structural reform. The BBC needs to be flatter, with minimal bureaucracy, and with high quality, independently minded and committed journalists driving its news and current affairs programmes. The Beeb should also grow a pair and put two fingers up to the government when needed.

Bernie G.

Whilst the impossible is a tough sell falling short is no defense. The Herald of Free Enterprise was a wakeup call for the concept of corporate liability, not least in the obligations of a chief exec. Senior management doesn’t need to be hands on but it is obliged to assume responsibility for the game plan. Anything goes wrong then it’s your neck on the line. Entwistle is portrayed as a time served BBC apparatchik who lived, breathed and determined the game plan. Newsnight might have a lower audience than Only Connect but it remains a central to the BBC’s justification for the license fee. The Raison d'être of the BBC is that they’re one of the world’s great news organisations. I’m sure the BBC’s elite view anything other than news, whatever the viewing figures, as something they are obliged to produce in order to keep the plebs happy – after all you have taken their money. The BBC must be one of the few organisations that retain a sizeable middle-management; they’re eye-wateringly expensive but far too expensive to offload. I also suspect a large part of BBC’s problem with devolving power is the grass roots reluctance to assume the responsibility that comes with their privileged position. They talk a good game but they don’t appear to have the balls for it.


After the initial Savile furore, a more savvy operator than Entwhistle would have issued a directive stating that any item on sex abuse, on any programme, would have to be cleared with him personally before broadcast. The defence that he was precluded from doing this by virtue of the BBC's conventions on editorial independence, or the inquiries that had been announced, was naive and led many to the conclusion that he lacked the nous (and basic arse-covering skills) that any decent CEO should exhibit.

But setting aside Entwhistle's personal competence, what this highlight's is the extent to which the Birt reforms in particular, and the fashion for outsourcing in large corporations more generally, have unintentionally made the BBC dysfunctional. This has in turn made it vulnerable to the criticisms of some (David Elstein) who've had it in for Entwhistle since day one and others (the famously incurious Murdochs) who've had it in for the BBC for years.

Coincidentally, last week saw the announcement that freelancers will now join the BBC payroll. The personal services company tax dodge is widespread across the professional classes (probably 1.5m workers), though we usually only hear about it in the context of BBC "talent" and civil servants, or high-profile cases such as Ken Livingstone. It's no secret that the BBC's commitment to sourcing a large part of its productions via independent providers was achieved by moving many staff off payroll to freelance status.

Internal market mechanisms, such as Producer Choice (now defunct though the damage is done), and freelance employment status, lead to a managerial culture in which anything not in the contract is deemed out of scope and therefore beyond oversight. To this extent, Entwhistle's incuriosity is endemic. The criticism that the BBC is very large and therefore subject to hierarchy and command-and-control is true, but this is only part of the problem. At root, the Newsnight fiasco reflects the degree to which too many players in the drama do not think of themselves as BBC employees, with a "duty of care" to the corporation. You can see this both in the role of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the tone of comments by various Newsnight worthies.


On the other hand the situation maybe evidence that manager as a leader can be a good thing. At least in terms of perception.

Investigative journalism like many endeavours will always involve a risk of failure, also there is a chance of a disproportional reaction when the failure occurs. Perhaps it is better for the boss to get shit canned rather than more drastic alternatives.

Richard Powell

I'm afraid I don't find this persuasive. Yes, there are many demands on the DG's attention. That is one reason he is paid £450k a year. But no-one is suggesting that he should have an intimate knowledge of all the BBC's output, just that he should be abreast of politically sensitive issues. Given the enormous rumpus surrounding Jimmy Savile's posthumous outing as a sex pest, and given also Mr Entwistle's uncomfortable appearance in front of the Select Committee, it was surely just common sense for him to keep an eye out for any similarly sensitive issues. His failure to do so might be described as unworldly, or perversely heroic, or lots of things. It certainly suggested that he was unsuited to the role of DG. But I don't see that there are many wider conclusions to be drawn about the nature of leadership in large, inchoate organisations.

David Jones

C'mon, Chris: Newsnight is very important despite the relatively small audience and it should have been under very careful watch following the previous cock-up. Also, Entwistle, in his interview with Humphreys, claimed ignorance of very basic things even I was aware of and I'm not paid any money by the BBC at all.

john b

"Newsnight is very important despite the relatively small audience"

[citation needed]


I don't understand why he resigned at all. The buck should stop at the top if 1) there is a chronic problem -- and this Saville/McAlpine case strikes me as totally exceptional and unusual I can't remember anything like this at the BBC ever before. Or 2) a systemic problem -- and the story was apparently checked by the correct layers of management and lawyers. Personally I would fire the lawyer and editor and never employ the reporter again. Sometimes the people who faff up really are the people responsible.

Maybe there are other problems with BBC management but they seem irrelevant here.

I certainly don't think senior management should be checking news stories- if the news editors and lawyers decide its OK then its none of his business. Indeed the whole Saville criticism seems to be whether senior management interfered when they shouldn't.



Yeah, I think you are right.

The entire episode is a storm in a teacup. if people on the ground floor messed up then they should be dismissed, disciplined or retrained or whatever. Why George Entwhistle had to go is a mystery. He didn't make the mistakes

Tim Newman

"The BBC employs 23,000 people. It is therefore a statistical certainty that there will be occasions of gross incompetence. If there's a great deal of ruin in a nation, there is also a great deal in any organization. To expect one man to prevent an act of idiocy by any one of 23,000 others is, surely, to expect the impossible."

This is true, but inconsistent with the idea - one with which I agree - that the buck stops with the top man. Tony Hayward was not involved in the Macondo incident in any way, shape, or form; and nor could the lapses which led to the event be credibly pinned on him. Still, he was the boss, and he had to go (not that he was sacked IIRC, but he did lose his job as CEO).

If you take the line you have done above, it reverses twenty years worth of corporate responsibility campaigning. I think it is a good thing that the CEO of major oil companies have to personally sign the company HSE policies, and be ultimately responsible for anything and everything which happens under them. That is why he employs a management structure, after all.


Why haven't the antics of ITV's Phillip Schofield aroused anything like the degree of ire that newsnight has.

He actually had a list of names written on a piece of card which he'd gleaned from the internet. He then demanded that Cameron investigate the names whereas newsnight didn't reveal any names at all.
Is newsnight responsible for what people write on twitter etc?

Churm Rincewind

@ FromArsetoElbow and Anonymous: I'm sorry, but both your posts are wrongheaded and uninformed. Apart from anything else, one of the most notable aspects of the Birt reforms was to introduce a greater degree of rigour in the BBC's current affairs reportage.

The BBC that Birt inherited was sclerotic, inefficient, internally corrupt, and wholly resistant to change (specific examples available on request).

What Birt did was to replace the previous "referral-up" and in-house procedures, which were clearly both unwieldy and unworkable in a diverse media environment, with a devolved system of responsibilities - for example the "Producer's Choice" approach which FromArsetoElbow now reviles.

And if "outsourcing" programming leads inevitably to a lack of editorial oversight, how has Channel Four managed to sustain its reputation for editorial integrity given that its entire output is outsourced?


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