Press comment on the BBC’s Saville crisis is off beam. Pollard transcripts reveal individual errors more than cultural flaws

Reacting to the transcripts of the Pollard report on the “crisis” within the BBC, where do I start?  Best to sum up and not get bogged down.  For that, go to Steve Hewlett’s video in the Independent. To be fair press comment on Pollard today is fairly mild, perhaps exhausted after covering the affair as it happened.

Yes, chaos and “faffing about” are revealed in the transcripts. Some of the faffing is about concealing full candour which Pollard for all its length doesn’t and couldn’t uncover. But as Roy Greenslade who knows a thing or two about media organisations and their mess ups says, what other organisation would expose itself so completely?  Overdone I say. Nobody not even lawyers can conduct themselves every day as if they’re permanently in a witness box. The impact of the Pollard report may be counterproductive:  to make the BBC and many other public organisations more bureaucratic not less.

Some comment  is wrong headed or confused.  There is not much fundamentally wrong with BBC culture. It seems to be a characteristic of abuse, to require  one well attested sequence of  abuses to open the floogates. And there the BBC was hesitant and slow off the mark. Savile was one for Panorama.   But institutionally, there is little here to compare with the Leveson agenda for the press.  The chairman Chris Patten with all his experience would have been better to have played a straight bat in public and resisted the temptation for phrasemaking which stoked the impression of corporate collapse.

The institutional Savile problem was essentially this.  BBC guidelines and systems are designed to get difficult material on air. But what is the management role when the material isn’t offered up and editor says “no story”?   By itself, the Newsnight editor’s decision to stop work in progress on Savile causes me no difficulty. The question is why the team were not allowed to stick with it. This suggests basic distrust on top of the perennial problem of a lack of resources. And that is a huge problem which needed management attention it did not receive. Instead the short lived DG disastrously removed News management from effective control, unwittingly left the BBC defensive in a firestorm and exposed his own throat to the knife.   

What was clearly lacking was a habit of  open discussion about disagreements within  programmes.  That means more management by walking about rather than through IT and management guff like risk assessment so vague and arbitrary as to be almost meaningless.

Senior management, perhaps over-respectful of programme independence relied too much on risk assessment reporting by email. After the airing of the  ITV programme (which did not use Newsnight’s sole filmed witness), what appears like evasion was also partly about legal problems which could not be publicly discussed and quickly sorted. Why else does anybody who knows the business think they appeared so chaotic and slow to correct the notorious Newsnight editor’s blog?         

Unfolding knowledge of the scale of Savile’s crimes then seemed to spark a sort of nervous breakdown in Newsnight and a disastrous bid to recover their macho that led to the McAlpine affair (not covered by Pollard). This was by far the bigger editorial blunder although the public implications were more restricted.  Could Newsnight have thought  they were in the clear to refer to a senior Tory without naming him?

There is less management these days not more in a contracting BBC. Operational  day-to-day responsibility remains with individual editors who now have more “ management” to do . The problem internally was more about respect for an editor’s authority than bureaucracy.  Chaos began in this case when internal respect within Newsnight broke down.

What matters now is that the BBC gets on with its business. I hope no more heads roll. One DG is enough.  The current  fashionable hue and cry to sack, sack, sack is a facile panacea which increases fear and authoritarianism, two corporate diseases we can well do without.   All the people I know are decent and effective and will benefit from stronger top leadership and better luck.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London