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BBC scandal: lessons for the ABC to learn

BBC Director-General George Entwistle has been forced to resign, plunging the public broadcaster into crisis. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

As the BBC considers splitting the role of its chief executive and editor-in-chief, should the ABC give serious thought to adopting a similar model?

The ongoing turmoil at the BBC over an ever widening child sex abuse scandal demonstrates the difficulty of the senior manager of such a large and diverse organisation being charged with taking final editorial responsibility for the stories it runs.

There is much for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to learn from the PR disaster engulfing its British cousin. With a roughly similar corporate structure, the ABC should closely monitor how the BBC reacts to an incorrect story that cost director general George Entwhistle his job, and move to ensure that it protects itself against a similar situation.

Seeking this weekend to contain the damage being done to the BBC by the Savile and McAlpine stories, Trust chairman Lord Patten stated that a “thorough, radical, structural overhaul” of the corporation’s management is required.

On a prominent BBC current affairs slot, and in the aftermath of George Entwistle’s resignation, he suggested that “there is a case” for separating the roles of director-general (DG) and news editor-in-chief.

In Monday’s Daily Telegraph veteran BBC reporter John Simpson called for the creation of a new post of director-general in charge of the corporation’s journalism.

In this he echoes Jonathan Holmes’ recent piece in The Drum arguing for a separation of management and editorial responsibilities at the ABC. “The editor-in-chief of a public broadcaster should not be its CEO,” Holmes wrote.

One can see the logic of this proposition. Had there been a layer of plausible deniability between the role of D-G and the decision-making process which led to the McAlpine story going out on November 2, it’s possible that George Entwistle would still have a job.

As it is, the lines of both editorial and managerial responsibility stopped with him, and he appears to have been otherwise engaged at the key moments when disaster might have been avoided. Asking a media CEO, or publisher, or managing director of an organisation employing 23,000 people to act also as editorial policeman over his or her journalists is, as this case has demonstrated beyond doubt, asking for trouble.

Let me make two points before considering the “separation of powers” argument.

First, it is important for those who value the unique role and status of the BBC not to be bounced into knee-jerk responses which may have more to do with public relations and politics than an informed understanding of what went wrong in the making of two editions of Newsnight.

Just as we should be wary of the view that the News Corp phone-hacking scandal justifies new rules and greater regulation of the news media as a whole, in the UK or here in Australia (as opposed to tougher application of existing laws), there must be perspective on this BBC crisis.

BBC News celebrates its 90th birthday this week, and for most of that time its journalistic work has been exemplary. The BBC is not regarded as a global leader in journalism for sentimental reasons, but because it has done a great job over a very long time and often under intense political pressure.

So let’s not draw conclusions as to the significance of this scandal before we know exactly what happened in the evolution of both stories – the true one which was spiked but shouldn’t have been, and the untrue one which should have been spiked but wasn’t.

Something went very wrong, yes, and executive heads are deservedly rolling, but it is too soon to say with confidence that this catastrophic failure of editorial standards was systemic rather than local, or attributable to Entwistle’s poor public defence of his actions rather than something inherent in the management structure.

Second, we have been here before, following the Hutton Inquiry into the Andrew Gilligan/“sexed-up dossier” scandal. As a result of those events, which saw the BBC pitched into fierce dispute with the New Labour government of the day, the BBC Trust in 2007 replaced the Board of Governors as an overseeing body, and with a remit to strengthen editorial control. That approach has demonstrably failed, with Lord Patten and the Trust under almost as much pressure this week as the BBC’s managers.

Is it now time to try again? Should editorial and corporate management functions now be legally separated at the BBC, and perhaps at the ABC too, as Holmes and others advocate?

Given that in this case the D-G had by his own admission responsibility for, but no operational involvement in or control over, the Newsnight editorial process, the case for separation of the two elements is strong.

Not having to carry that particular can might have saved not just Entwistle but the highly-regarded Greg Dyke in 2004 (also brought down by a perceived failure of editorial control).

On the other hand, there is a very real sense in which the editor-in-chief role of the D-G signals the essential place of news and journalism within public service media, both in the UK and Australia. Journalism is recognised as so important to the BBC’s raison d’etre that protecting its quality must be the personal business of the very top man or woman. The BBC CEO (who has always been someone with journalistic experience) isn’t involved in the micromanagement of every story and programme strand, but does play a significant role in the handling of the bigger picture stuff where reputation and even survival are at stake.

Just as Rupert Murdoch as News Corp CEO can fairly be handed responsibility for the culture of phone-hacking which flourished within his UK tabloid newspapers, the BBC’s D-G cannot avoid association with the editorial standards of the organisation, nor should he be able to, even if someone else is designated editor-in-chief.

To break with tradition by installing a CEO who is not at the same time editor-in-chief of the corporation’s journalism would risk strengthening the very managerialism and technocracy which some – Jeremy Paxman for one - blame for the current crisis.

It would downgrade and structurally isolate BBC News in the ongoing competition with a commercial sector which eyes its public service privileges with envy, and would pounce hungrily on every mistake as an excuse for ending those privileges.

That might not be a bad thing, if you think that privately-owned news organisations such as Sky could do just as good a job of protecting public interests as the current BBC or ABC structures.

Will the ABC take heed of the lessons from the BBC scandal and split the role of managing director and editor-in-chief? AAP/Alan Porritt

In the UK, the privately-owned ITN provides public service news to the commercial networks, and has to bid anew for its contracts every few years. Why shouldn’t BBC News be contracted out on the same basis? Or ABC News for that matter, as long as potential suppliers are prepared to play by the public service rules?

Before rushing into major structural overhaul, however, there must be clarity about precisely what happened in these two Newsnight investigations.

Was it as simple as the D-G – Thompson in 2011, Entwistle in 2012 – taking their respective eyes off the ball in two stories which by virtue of their subject – Jimmy Savile, child abuse, on BBC premises, remember - should have commanded the attention of any CEO? And if so, can new leadership restore probity and confidence?

Was it rogue editors and journalists working on or for the program (the role of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the McAlpine story is central)? Was it a lapse by senior managers below Entwistle to whom he might reasonably have delegated responsibility for watching over the production of material as sensitive as this – the Head of News, for example?

Was there straightforward incompetence, or perhaps even corruption (in relation to the spiking of the Savile package), which can be remedied by disciplinary action rather than structural change?

It’s too soon to tell, and thus too soon to assert that a different line of editorial responsibility, where the D-G in charge of overall corporate operations is not the same person as the editor-in-chief of news and journalism, would have avoided this drama, or at least contained it. We need to know more about the causes of this crisis before potentially laying the seeds of another.

The next renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter is due for 2016, and editorial management will be one of the key issues for negotiation. Plenty of time, then, to wait and see what the various inquiries into the Newsnight affair bring to light before drawing conclusions as to the next steps.

Whatever happens, ABC management in Sydney will be watching closely.

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