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Interview: Why Is The BBC In Crisis And What Can It Do About It?

The scandal forced George Entwhistle, the director-general of the BBC, to resign.
The scandal forced George Entwhistle, the director-general of the BBC, to resign.
The BBC, Britain's publicly funded media organization, has been widely criticized after revelations that TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011, had been abusing children. More recently, the BBC's flagship TV news program "Newsnight" wrongly accused a politician of being a pedophile, leading to its director-general, George Entwhistle, stepping down.

The crisis at the BBC follows on from a public Leveson Inquiry into the state of British journalism after it was revealed that journalists were widely involved in phone hacking. Does the recent scandal at the BBC indicate a deeper and longer-term crisis in the British media? RFE/RL's Luke Allnutt discusses these issue with Charlie Beckett, a former BBC staffer and the head of Polis, a media think tank at the London School of Economics.

RFE/RL: It is debatable, of course, whether the BBC is in crisis. But if you accept that the BBC does have problems, that it is in need of reform, what are the main problems at the BBC? Is it a case of dwindling resources? A crisis in the organization's ethics and mission? Or a bloated and overcomplicated bureaucracy?

Charlie Beckett:
I think it's a mixture of things, inevitably. I think we do have to remember that the BBC is an extraordinary institution that creates an incredible range of wonderful output, both locally, nationally, and internationally -- some of the highest-quality journalism and drama that you're ever going to enjoy. But I think that there is a problem.

One is about money. News, for example, has had 20 percent cutbacks and it's very difficult to adjust to that in the short term. I think definitely there's been a culture for the last 10, 15 years where too many of the top people have been lifetime BBC hands who perhaps don't have an objective view of the way they run things. And that may have bred a culture of too much bureaucracy and more of an attitude as much as numbers.

It's not just that there were too many bureaucrats or the BBC was too big. It was more that there wasn't a proper sense of responsibility, there wasn't a proper sense of dynamic, proactive management rather than just playing safe.

Charlie Beckett
Charlie Beckett
RFE/RL: In terms of the proactive management, in terms of what you've referred to as the problems in attitude, what do you think the BBC should do to address that?

I think the first thing is not to panic. The fundamentals of the BBC are very strong and it's never been more needed, both in Britain and I think around the world, to have that kind of culture, that kind of product that the BBC creates that is objective and high quality.

Yet I do think they need to look very hard at the leadership of the BBC. They need to strengthen the director-general by getting in a high-powered person from elsewhere and giving them much more support. But at the same time they have to shorten the chain of command. They have to have fewer people between what actually gets produced at the BBC and all those other top managers who approve it. I would suggest they need to devolve more to the program centers and give them more responsibility rather than always second-guessing them.

RFE/RL: To quote the "Daily Mail," often a critic of the BBC: "With a 5 billion pound annual budget, five main television channels, more journalists than all of Fleet Street put together, a sprawling radio network, international business arm and ubiquitous website, isn’t it simply too big for its own good?" What would you say to that?

I don't think it's just the absolute size. If you're going to cut it, which bit are you going to cut? Because people like the sprawling radio networks, they like the soap operas, they love the music, and they've all loved different types of music. So which bit do you want to cut? It will probably annoy various "Mail" readers if you cut the bit that they like, perhaps [the long-running radio series] "The Archers."

I think it's not so much just the size, but the BBC ought to be handing over some of those functions, or sharing them, or [making] partnerships with other organizations so it asks itself whether other media organizations, or even charities and so on, whether it could work with them so the BBC has less ownership.

The problem is that the BBC has become very defensive about what it does. There are these kind of barons that run the BBC's bits and they don't want to give up. They have never retreated on anything over the last 10 years. It just keeps getting bigger even when the money gets less so. I agree, there needs to be some sort of retrenchment, some sort of cutback, but a lot of it can be done by partnership rather than by axing things.

RFE/RL: When you talk about partnerships, can you give me an example of what you mean by that?

Well, at the local level for example, why can't we have more community organizations and citizens involved in creating local radio? Why can't we have sports [coverage] be semiprivatized, why can't you franchise them out? So I think there's a lot of opportunities for the BBC to get other people in. We can retain the BBC brand, but you can have the injection -- not just of other people like an independent producer -- but actually bringing in other ideas. Because funnily enough the BBC is wonderful, but it doesn't necessarily know everything.

RFE/RL: One of the most interesting things for outside observers is watching how the BBC has been covering itself and putting its senior executives under scrutiny across its radio and TV stations. In many parts of the world, with state-funded or public-funded broadcasters, that sort of self-evaluation and self-scrutiny would be absolutely unthinkable. Is that a sign of health at the BBC?

It is. It's very painful to watch, especially when it goes wrong. I think a confident organization, one that has genuine public support, shouldn't be frightened of putting itself under the spotlight in public. I think it is a necessary part of the therapy, if you like, of this current crisis. But longer term, it's really important that the BBC, if it wants to have 5 billion pounds ($7.9 billion) a year, if it wants to be so central to public life in Britain and of course around the world, then it needs to be accountable. And that’s more than [senior BBC executives] just going on air to be interviewed [by the BBC].

I think they also need to open up the way they work. They are still a bit too defensive. And while it's much, much better than most state broadcasters around the world, it's also much better than private media companies. [Media tycoon] Rupert Murdoch, even when he was facing the phone-hacking scandal, was very reluctant to be held publicly accountable. Well done to the BBC for at least trying to be honest.

RFE/RL: Does the BBC have this sense of self-scrutiny because of its status as a public-funded broadcaster? Or is it something about the culture of news reporting at the BBC? Or a bit of both?

I think it's a bit of both. In some ways, the formality of the accountability can get a bit stifling. They produce a report every year which the director-general then has to go in front of MPs and that's a formal kind of accountability. They also do road tours, where viewers and listeners can ask BBC people questions.

But especially in an age of social media, it's about having a continuing conversation, trying to be as open and transparent and trying to show that you're really listening to what the public are saying. And part of that is about getting more people from outside the BBC into the management so that they get a genuine perspective of how people think.

RFE/RL: Just watching the coverage on the BBC over the last few days, it does seem they've been perhaps overdoing the self-scrutiny. It's been continuous and seems perhaps a bit out of proportion compared to the other news happening around the world. Isn't there something a little bit self-indulgent, a get-out clause, where they're saying if we do this [self-scrutiny] now perhaps this would lessen the need for reform? Is this perhaps a bit of a smokescreen?

Yes, I think there may be some truth in this. I'm fascinated by the crisis because I used to work at the BBC and my job is to look at the media. I would say, though, that if we want to know about all those other issues in the world, such as child abuse; if we want to know about the European financial crisis; if we want to know about corruption of politicians, then we need good journalism.

In Britain and around the world the BBC does represent good journalism, and so I think it's worth taking a few days to have a really good, hard look about whether the BBC does have a structural problem here, how can it reform itself. I agree with your point, though, that there is a danger that having this kind of public chest-beating and self-flagellation -- that the BBC can say, well, we've been through this purging experience, now leave us alone and we'll get back to business.

I'm sure a lot of people in the BBC right now just want to get on with their jobs and I think that's fair enough. But I would definitely say that the leadership shouldn't just be saying, "right, let's get a grip, get control back, and business as usual." Because I think there was a genuine appointment of [former director-general] George Entwhistle, but he was an honorable man who probably sensed that he did need to reform the BBC and I hope we don't just forget that need for reform just because Entwhistle has paid that price.

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