Getting A Grip

Posted on November 12, 2012


I doubt that there was a more disconsolate, bleak place of work than Broadcasting House in London today. Although I left the BBC on Friday, I spent a few hours there this morning, recording interviews for a documentary.

The press was gathered in the rain, dressed mostly in funereal black; monstrous satellite vans were double-parked outside the Bath stone beauty of All Souls Church; photographers sucked on their takeaway coffee. And through this greyness walked BBC staff, marked out by their security passes on vivid red lanyards.

This scene has been played out before of course. The media reporting on the media. News International employees were the last to have the TV cameras and long lenses trained on them. The script doesn’t change, but it’s discomfiting for the majority of staff of any broadcaster or publication who work their socks off and play by the rules.

Many of the BBC employees who find themselves having to walk past a bank of TV cameras and correspondents have been through this before. In 2008 with Ross and Brand; but also, in 2004, when another Director-General, Greg Dyke, fell on his sword following the Hutton Inquiry.

Although there are similarities between what’s happening now and what occurred in 2004 – a flawed piece of journalism, a lack of editorial rigour, the most senior head rolling – this is even more painful. Greg Dyke was in place for 4 years, George Entwistle for just 54 days. In 2004, there seemed to be no shortage of people who could be drafted in; who could ‘act up’. This time, it feels like the BBC is running out of people to turn to. How bewildering and unsettling for staff. Everywhere they look, their bosses are being recused, moved aside or are resigning. Many already feel that they are doing the work of 2 or 3 people. Now the people to whom they are answerable and on whom they depend for guidance are changing every week.

Even more dispiriting is the abuse being directed at BBC staff. Although many licence-payers and commentators are highlighting the peerless programming and journalism the BBC broadcasts every day, others are directing their long-held and barely-concealed anger at the Corporation.  In the early days of the Jimmy Savile allegations (remember them?), a BBC reporter tweeted about someone screaming ‘paedophile’ at a BBC employee who had been wearing an ID pass.

Half an hour after George Entwistle resigned on Saturday night, I asked my Twitter followers to ‘retweet this if you still love the BBC’. Since then, over three and a half thousand have – including some prominent BBC names like Jeremy Bowen. But many couldn’t bring themselves to. They’ve admired the BBC for decades – but they don’t know the steps to this particular dance. Others have responded with a dizzying list of contradictory accusations. They hate the BBC because, in their opinion, they are: paedophile harbourers; coalition government lap-dogs; Labour-supporting Guardian readers; anti-Semites; Zionists; tax-dodgers; destroyers of the NHS; navel-gazers; supporters of unchecked immigration… take your pick. Choose a crime. The BBC is accused of it.

For journalists and presenters who have access to viewers and listeners through text messages, emails and tweets, this is nothing new. Of course the BBC and its staff have a thick enough skin to get through this. But I feel for the producers and journalists whose leadership appears to have deserted them. The BBC is accused of forgetting the original victims of the child abuse; but if they don’t spend sufficient time flogging themselves publicly on their own channels and those of rival broadcasters then they’re apparently guilty of a cover-up or unaccountable.

The day Greg Dyke resigned, many of us left our desks at Television Centre and stood outside the building in the freezing January air, chanting his name. Notwithstanding the mistakes that had been made, I had never see such support for a departing leader. He arrived later that afternoon, tumbling out of his car into the waiting throng of staff on Wood Lane. He’d come from a now infamously chaotic press conference outside Broadcasting House, and there was a surge as people tried to shake his hand. Inside the building, he climbed onto a desk in the newsroom and said: “Don’t be cowed”, as staff applauded him.  Days later, many of us paid £5 each to place a letter in the Telegraph, in support of Greg Dyke. Apparently, only half the names could go on the letter because there wasn’t enough space. I am proud that mine made it, and is near the top.

Those who signed it did so for varying and personal reasons. Some felt he had been unfairly accused; some that he had been insufficiently supported. Others simply felt sorrow at losing a popular and effective leader.

But as he exited, Greg Dyke acted, instead of letting events drown out his voice and send him on his way. Even in defeat and departure, the Director-General sought us out and spoke to us. He did something that appears to have gone out of fashion. As he left, he got a grip of the situation. He steadied the ship. I hope someone at the BBC does the same now.

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