12 Nov 2012

How can the BBC recover from crisis?

As Britain’s national broadcaster faces an internal collapse of management and a battle to regain trust from the public, Channel 4 News looks at how it can bounce back from crisis.

After a weekend of 24-hour interviews, resignations and “stepping asides”, it is difficult to untangle the series of events that led to the BBC‘s current crisis.

It started at the end of 2011 with a decision not to broadcast a report on allegations of child abuse against Jimmy Savile. A subsequent decision to broadcast a 2 November report on Newsnight that accused an unnamed former Tory politician of child abuse then came under scrutiny after it emerged that Lord Alistair McAlpine had been subject to a case of mistaken identity.

Both incidents call into question editorial judgement at BBC News. And in its reaction to mistakes, the BBC has revealed a multi-layered management structure and a director-general who appeared not to be fully briefed on the controversial programme’s content. So how can such a well-trusted, and huge, corporation recover?

Leading from the top

The first thing the BBC should do is appoint a new director-general, and not be seen to be indecisive, Patrick Barwise, professor of management and marketing at London Business School and Which? chairman, told Channel 4 News. Tim Davie has been appointed acting director-general, but choosing a permanent leader should be high on the corporation’s to-do list, he adds.

“When you’ve got a leadership crisis and such a hostile media environment, what you need is to have someone in post as soon as possible, who is not interim,” he said.

But this person needs to be up to the task in hand, and not a knee-jerk appointment: “You need have someone in place who maybe has the right style for dealing with these very tough interviews, and questions from grandstanding MPs,” he told Channel 4 News, adding: “If this had come six months later, Entwistle would have been a bit more battle-hardened.”

When you’ve got a leadership crisis, and such a hostile media environment, what you need is to have someone in post as soon as possible, who is not interim. Professor Patrick Barwise

The management structure at the BBC has also been criticised for having so many roles that editorial responsibility falls between the gaps. But Mr Barwise does not agree that this is the cause of the corporation’s current crisis.

“It’s mainly to do with the individuals, not structure,” he told Channel 4 News. “There was clearly a little too much ambiguity about where the buck stops. But they have been unlucky in the sense that this is a whole set of people operating in interim basis, or new to the job.”

BBC brand

From a branding perspective, restoring trust in the BBC will be crucial to its recovery. And since credibility and news values are central to the corporation’s “product”, the best thing the BBC can do is to concentrate on what it is producing.

Saturday’s hard-hitting interview by John Humphrys of George Entwistle on the Today programme has already gone some way towards this, by showcasing objectivity and a commitment to getting to the bottom of a story.

In the current crisis, there are actually three brands under pressure, says branding consultant James Von Leyden: the BBC, BBC News and Newsnight itself.

“BBC news and BBC brands will bounce back – and they will do that best by simply going back to core strengths and high quality programmes,” says Mr Von Leyden. “However, I think Newsnight has had to deal with two body blows, and forfeited the trust it has built up.”

Shadow of Leveson

The BBC has come under such scrutiny because the programmes in question covered the hugely sensitive topic of child abuse – but because the crisis has unfolded in the wake of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, which is due to report later this month.

Some experts say this may yet work in the BBC’s favour: once the scale of law-breaking within the press over a sustained period of time is again under the spotlight, the BBC’s two questionable editorial decisions may yet be seen in a different light.

In the meantime, the corporation needs to be seen to be in control, to “draw a line under knee-jerk sackings”, according to Mr Von Leyden, and focus on the reason it is so trusted in the first place – its journalism.

Patrick Barwise agrees. “The only way to earn trust is by keeping your promise,” he says. “The Beeb’s promise is they apply the highest standards of objectivity and credibility. They’ve just got to tighten up and get a grip on their journalism.”