The BBC is in danger of imploding in a Greek tragedy of its own making. And Rupert Murdoch is watching, carefully.
Not because the BBC can’t get enough tax-payers’ cash through the anachronistic licence fee to fund good programming.
And not because one of its many programmes, albeit a flagship, failed badly to adhere to the basic rules of professional journalism.
Judgements about Newsnight’s lamentable journalistic and editorial failings, confirmed on Monday 12 November by the BBC’s initial internal inquiry by Ken MacQuarrie, should just affect those directly involved in producing the badly researched programme on 2 November and the earlier decision to shelve the Savile investigation.
So just how did Newsnight become the BBC’s Achilles’ heel? First the Director-General had to go and now the existence of the organisation in its present form has to be in question despite hasty reassurances.
Tuesday 13 November has seen the first stirrings of the serious commentariat view that the BBC is not fit for purpose and is modelled on the needs of a bygone age (Hat tip to the FT for that). Murdoch must be smiling by now?
The BBC has only itself to blame. The mess is wholly due to its arcane and bloated (hat tips to Newsnight’s host Jeremy Paxman and veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby for the adjectives) management structure and top-down style (hat tip to ex D-G George Entwistle there). Another hang-over from a bygone age.
The BBC has become an object lesson on how not to manage a crisis; a marvel in the classic PR mistakes canon.
It begs the question: did management and trustees let its reputation management experts, namely the communications department, do their job?
Ignoring paid expert advisors is perilous.
Crisis management is supposed to contain the damage, limit the impact of an unfortunate error or set of circumstances before it contaminates the brand. (This is the first lesson.)
But the BBC’s management has collectively managed to fan the flames sparked by the woeful editorial judgements of its flagship current affairs programme.
Put simply it managed to both over- and under-react and be hasty and too slow in equal measures. Quite a feat to be found wanting on such opposing fronts.
Under-reaction initially triggered the seismic events.
Firstly it chose not to air a programme that would have correctly identified a high-profile child abuser. This was, all agree, the first grievous error. (Reputational error no 1).
An error badly affecting Jimmy Savile’s victims who had taken a risk and entrusted the BBC to use its might to expose a celebrity using his fame to hide in plain sight. (Reputational failure no 2).
To add insult to injury, their suffering is now overshadowed by the scale of the BBC’s astonishing corporate failings first exposed when the now ex-DG tried and failed to explain events when summoned by MPs. (Reputational failure no 3: giving the impression that it is consumed with its own importance.)
The pendulum swung the other way on Friday 2 November with an edition which set the internet alight with wild accusations of paedophilia that were duly harvested and used to ambush the PM by Phillip Schofield on ITV1’s This Morning sofa last Thursday. (All the more astonishing as the sofa is seen as a docile media platform in political terms.)
The minute that Lord McAlpine and then his one-time accuser had made their respective statements last Friday, a week after the original broadcast, that clearly set the record straight Newsnight became a toxic brand.
That night’s programme was a platform for apology as the wronged peer’s lawyers circled his errant accusers with defamation writs in hand.
It seemed the damage limitation exercise had finally been allowed to begin and the considerable media relations expertise that resides in the corporate communications department unleashed.
The BBC’s reputational stock finally began to rise when Entwistle subjected himself live on air to both barrels of the force that was John Humphrys’ stretched incredulity in an uncharacteristically feisty Saturday morning edition of Today.
Twitter was atweet with the development and approval.
Entwistle played the stooge compounding the impression given to MPs that he had no idea what his journalists were doing when he admitted to Humphrys he knew nothing of the fateful Newsnight broadcast until after transmission.
This was an uncomfortable echo of his admission that he knew nothing of the allegations contained in the Savile investigation by Newsnight that was shelved last December.
Though Humphrys was applauded by some commentators on Twitter for bravery for tackling his boss without compunction; it was clear that Entwistle was already toast.
The tactic seemed to be, let the DG take the flak because he’s a goner anyway.
Entwistle’s mea culpa took the form of a series of startling admissions portraying himself as a man who had little idea what his journalists were doing on-air or with the corporation’s reputation.
When a contrite Entwistle and a thunderous Lord Patten stood shoulder-to-shoulder to announce the former’s head was rolling, it seemed as though the next tactic in the crisis management plan had been put into place. Reputational stock rose again. The narrative was, ‘Look Lord Patten’s sacrificed his man over this’.
Journalists even briefly paused to wonder if Entwistle deserved to go (the answer though was still ‘Yes’, despite Jeremy Paxman’s robust defence of his former boss) until it emerged that a massive £450,000 pay-off was agreed although contractually he was only due half that amount.
That’s an incredible £60,000 per week if his pay for the eight weeks of office is also taken into consideration. Most tax-payers would be delighted to find a job that pays that salary annually.
All endeavours to rescue the beleaguered organisation’s reputation were in tatters once more.
First ITV pipped the BBC to the post by breaking the news that the DG was resigning. Second the trustees failed to see how damaging it was to reward the perceived failure of its DG with a massive tax-payer funded pay-off.
Entwistle no longer seemed gallant and it appeared the BBC was still looking after its own.
‘How much? Not your money to spend!’, was the collective cry from Britain’s tax-payers and Monday’s national press.
The BBC rallied and the fight-back began on Monday 12 November when the nation’s favourite voice of reason David Dimbleby appeared to throw his hat into the ring, hedging his bets for either Director General’s vacant or Chairman’s as-yet-still occupied role, in a refreshing exchange on Today.
(Another Humphrys’ interview, the broadcaster is emerging as king-maker in this epic).
So will Dimbleby be allowed save the honour of Auntie?
Reputationally it makes sense. His personal brand value is high, he is a household name from a dynasty of broadcasters whose very DNA is BBC.
He represents all that is respected and trusted about the BBC (effortlessly demonstrated by his ability to chair even the most unruly of guests every week on Question Time and dispense with jargon, cut through to common sense and above all to name an outrage when he sees it).
All qualities which the BBC is in desperate need of if it’s going to convince the tax-payer to ignore Murdoch and keep on funding Auntie.
If Dimbleby is the key tactic in the crisis management plan, then it’s pure PR genius or just plain luck that he waded in when he did.