At the scandal-ridden BBC, life is just one big party


By Kenneth Roy
A feature of the still unfolding BBC crisis which has been little noticed is the importance of parties in the conduct of its business. The other sort of parties, the political ones, are important too in a boring sort of way; they have to be tolerated as the conduits for maintaining the BBC’s position of unique privilege in British life. But the drinks parties are more fun.

Yesterday Dame Janet Smith, a 72-year-old former appeal court judge, began her inquiry into ‘culture and practices’ at the corporation. She will discover that no one employed by the BBC in a senior capacity has ever read a book on the first principles of managerial good practice. She will discover that none of them has ever attended a course on the qualities required for modern leadership. She will discover that, above a certain floor (the third), communication in any meaningful sense ceases.

The office of Mark Thompson, the former director-general, was so detached from reality that, when two reports of Savile’s criminality were received by it last year, neither of them was passed on to the director-general himself. This is the man who hopes to save the New York Times, assuming that there is anything in New York left to save (although at the time of writing Sandy looks a bit like a storm in a tea party).

If the people around Mr Thompson considered allegations of child abuse on BBC premises too trival to refer to their employer, this may say something about the employer. It seems he was paid a huge amount of public money to be informed on a need-to-know basis, and that he didn’t need to know very much.

Mr Thompson’s original claim that he had never heard of rumours about Savile while he was director-general – I, perhaps naively, wrote at the time that I believed him – was challenged at the weekend by a story in the Sunday Times. Last Christmas, when he was still director-general, and after his office had twice in five months failed to alert him to complaints about Sir Jammy, he met Caroline Hawley, a BBC journalist, at a party. According to Ms Hawley’s account of the encounter, she told him that he ‘must be concerned’ about the Newsnight investigation. Mr Thompson now says that, as a result of this tip-off, he ‘formed the impression’ that the programme was investigating claims against Savile.

It is unclear whether Mr Thompson still stands by his original version of events, but we know from his successor, the hapless George Entwistle, that directors-general of the BBC are among the least curious and most forgetful people on the planet. It is possible that, with the passage of time, the meeting with Ms Hawley simply slipped his mind or that he failed to attach any significance to its content. It took place at a Christmas party after all.

Mr Entwistle heard about the Newsnight investigation when he too was attending a party. It is unclear whether Ms Hawley was present at this other party, but it too seems to have been a seasonal celebration of some sort.

On that occasion, it was the director of news – does news really need a director? I thought it just happened, like the deeply annoying Sandy – approached Mr Entwistle and informed him of the Newsnight investigation. Mr Entwistle was grateful for the information, while expressing no interest in it. He did not ask, as many of us would have asked, the simple question ‘Why?’. But there is a possible explanation. The director of news, one Helen Boaden, directed the news to Mr Entwistle when they were both attending a party.

Most businesses and institutions – the ones which send their people on management courses or instruct them to read books on the subject; you can acquire them easily enough at most branches of W H Smith – have more formal procedures for reporting decades of child rape by someone on the payroll. The chief executives of the best of these organisations make themselves routinely available to employees who wish to blow a whistle or otherwise share their concerns; an hour a week is often set aside for this purpose. Modern methods of communication such as email and Skype are helpful. It is not unknown for these organisations to have formal meetings at which business is conducted and decisions are minuted.

As I say, you can pick up all this useful stuff from improving books written by people called management gurus. But the BBC is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That helps to explain why, in an opinion poll conducted since the Savile scandal broke, more than half of the people who pay for the BBC – ‘the great British public’ as the late Derek Jameson used to call us – no longer trust it.

The biggest BBC party of the year is just around the corner. In a fortnight, the nation’s favourite auntie will be launching its annual charitable appeal. By an unfortunate irony – it may be the cruellest cut of all – the appeal is made in the name of children in need.

I have a sentimental attachment to this cause. Long ago, when I worked for the BBC, they asked me to present the Children in Need appeal in Scotland. It was a modest programme in those days; no big deal. The BBC was careful not to swamp all the other appeals for disadvantaged kids taking place at this time of year. There was a dignity and sense of proportion about the enterprise. It was an honour to be associated with it.

Not long afterwards, the BBC decided that it should become a branch of showbiz, a telethon stretching across the weekend, attracting the many oily creeps from ‘light entertainment’, including Savile himself. The great British public lapped it up, and its success fuelled the BBC’s enormous self-regard – the hubris for which it is suffering the consequences. All the while, as the corporation paraded its credentials as friend of the nation’s children, it was ignoring sexual crimes committed against children in its own dressing rooms.

We learned yesterday that, when he took over as chairman of Children in Need, the BBC’s governor in Wales, Roger Jones, was so repelled by the rumours he was hearing that he banned Savile from any connection with the appeal. Still nothing was done. Still the BBC hadn’t read the book or attended the course.

We learned from the same source, Roger Jones, that paedophiles and paedophile groups ‘targeted the appeal like flies around the honey pot’. I thought this ghastly saga couldn’t sink much lower. It just did.

The party’s over. In more ways than one, the party’s over. If the BBC had any decency, any residual self-respect, it would, on the evening before the Children in Need charade, broadcast a full on-air apology to the many children abused by Savile and his cronies because of the BBC’s institutional and personal failures. The chairman, Chris Patten, should do it himself.

But he won’t.

Care for drinkies, anyone?

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review