Pollard Review: The “Ghost of Birtism” should be the BBC’s Guiding Spirit

December 30, 2012

N.B. My personal views

Almost everything I read in the newspapers about the BBC bears no resemblance to the reality of my day to day life working there.

Mostly, I just shrug.

But I couldn’t let this piece by Peter Preston The BBC must lay the ghost of Birt’s broadcasting corporation in the Guardian a week ago go without comment.

Recently I’ve been spending as much time as I can in the magnificent new Broadcasting House, with its integrated multi-media newsroom at it’s heart. That newsroom is the house that Birt built, the physical manifestation of Birt’s vision to build a 24 hour truly digital joined up BBC news machine.

Some people still seem to hate him for it. Personally I think he was right.

But whether he was right or wrong it seems odd to blame Birtism for the BBC’s biggest crisis. I’ve read all 185 pages of the Pollard Review Report. It’s as riveting as a novel and for BBC geeks like myself (let’s face it I do think and talk about the BBC far more than is healthy for me) a compelling read.

But what went wrong seems on my reading to be nothing to do with the Birtist machine. It seems much simpler.

An editor makes a bad call. The team pulling together the story disagree with him. He can’t bring them with him. As a result trust between them completely breaks down. A pernicous cycle of leaking and briefing follows where there should be an honest conversation. When it becomes vital to establish what actually happened quickly, this is impossible because the two sides don’t trust each other.

So the problem is not as the article puts it “if programme editors were actually editors rather than links in these mystic chains”. The editor did edit and his managers in the chain of command (actually there was only one, one link in a clear chain of command above him) lined up behind him. But on a story as important as this he lost authority and trust. The battle lines were drawn.

Like every other crisis I’ve lived through at the BBC, this was about leadership, trust and culture, not “Birtism” or “compliance”. Unless someone can show that John Birt created a culture where lack of trust was the norm, Birtism is not to blame. In my experience in the past twenty years, when I’ve had a good manager, I’ve had freedom to make editorial decisions in the way that editorial people always have. The chain of command works.

The most alarming sentence in the article is this one:

And don’t, time and again, be so damned defensive. Make the press department reach out – not hunch defensively.

In my opinion “hacks” and “flacks”, have a symbiotic relationship which is fruitful for both parties. That’s how news works. But what you’re called, whether you work in the newsroom or the press office, doesn’t matter as much as how you behave.

One of the most disturbing sections of the Pollard report is where BBC News management and the Press Office become as one, and start to behave in the same way. Hannah Livingston who was on the recieving end of this sums it up:

…I saw the fuzzy face of the auntie we all know morph into the incomprehensible hardened one of a broadcasting corporation.

I gently ask: is it really in the spirit of the BBC’s values for BBC communications people (or anyone) to “drip poison”, or negatively brief off the record about other BBC people? If the BBC is supposed to be accurate shouldn’t everyone be trying to establish what happened, rather than trying to spin it, first one way and then the other?

Maybe the Press Office should not “reach out”. What’s the difference between reaching out and briefing off the record? Hunching can be a sign of humility, or at least an awareness that you might have done something wrong. A period of humble reflection might be better than more “over reaching”.

In any case, I can’t see what this has to do with the “Ghost of Birtism”. On the contrary one of the most depressing aspects of the recent crisis has been the way the BBC has been sucked into examining itself and its past rather than looking at what it should do in the future.

For better or worse John Birt had a vision of what was needed in the future. He made it happen, and BBC people are now living in it, and to my mind it’s good.

Rather than being exorcised the ghost of Birtism should be allowed to roam free in the new BH, in the hope that its spirit might inspire somebody to come up with some new ideas about the BBC’s future.

Happy new year!

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