Four questions for George Entwistle at parliament on 23 October 2012

Television Centre, the main broadcasting centr...

Television Centre, the main broadcasting centre for the BBC, situated in White City, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When George Entwistle answers questions before the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee on Tuesday 23 October 2012, the committee will face several challenges.  First, the committee will show the public’s interest about the withdrawal of the Newsnight programme.  On the surface, this is an important question for the organisation’s editorial integrity.  Second, the Committee will have an immediate interest in understanding how the investigations commissioned by BBC,  focusing on sexual harassment policy and the culture and practices that existed while Jimmy Savile was working at the BBC will be progressed.  These are important questions which will look at how the BBC reacted to the Savile scandal and what lessons need to be learned from it. However, there are deeper questions that need to be considered.  What the committee has to do is find a way to explore the BBC’s corporate culture.  In effect, the corporate culture will explain the Savile scandal and the decisions around the investigations.

The questions focus on internal communications and records management. As such, they may seem less glamorous than other questions that some may want to ask. However, they combine to show us the harassment issues, the abuse allegations and the BBC’s current state in a different way. If the focus is on the Newsnight programme or other editorial decisions, the committee will seem to chase political or institutional scores. The opinions, intent, and motives, are the subjective side to the issues. Instead, the committee needs to focus on the objective side of the issues. What the records hold, how the records are kept, and how the organisation works; its internal culture.  Here are the four questions or themes in no particular order, I hope will help the Committee in its questions.

First, what records, if any, are there of the allegations of abuse by Savile or anyone has the historical record keeping on these issues improved?

The question is critical because victims of “Uncle Dick” as raised by John Simpson claim that the BBC wrote to them to deny the allegations.  If the BBC wrote to families, where are the copies of the letters? If the BBC did not keep these letters, why did it fail to retain them? If there are letters, who authorised them and who signed them?  The question is essential to understanding past practices as well as corroborating some of the stories that have been generated by victims.

In each case, the organisation has stated that they can find no evidence of allegations or complaints.  If this is the case, historically, what is the current situation?  For example, the BBC policies and rules mention child protection, and other policies such as bullying and harassment show that the issues are recorded. How robust are those policies and how do you know they are robust? How many allegations have been filed in the past year, what is the trend over the past 5 years?  If the complaints are increasing, has the organisation analysed the information to understand why they have increased?

The search for evidence within the BBC’s archives and records will raise further questions.  One of which may be the need for the equivalent of a Shaw report to assess how the BBC reforms the way it records and retains allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. The first claims were that no evidence has been found in the archives or in records.  As result, one can expect that the organisation’s approach to records management will be reviewed.  The archival policy and the records management policy will be tested as investigators search evidence of Savile’s crimes.   What is the BBC is doing to keep its institutional memory so that historical events like Jimmy Savile are unlikely to be repeated.

Second, what is the process for investigating the allegations within the BBC?

One of the independent investigations is looking at this issue, but the question gets to the heart of the corporate culture.  If the system is supposedly robust, why has it failed to find or deal with allegations of sexual assaults or sexual harassment?  A recurring theme for many victims is that the organisation was contacted in some way. Yet, senior managers seem uninformed or unaware of these allegations or claims. In a recent incident, the victim claimed that they filed a complaint with the Police, but no further action was taken.  The BBC has no record of this allegation. At the same time, the organisation has no record of any Savile complaints or allegations.  The procedure to report harassment can be found here.  Interestingly, it was difficult to find on BBC search engine or through the internet.  The question will help the committee see how Entwistle understands his organisation and how the organisation understands itself.

Third, why has the corporate culture become one where senior managers are out of touch with their staff?

The question goes to a critical flaw within the organisation.  The BBC faces its crisis because its corporate culture is in crisis.  The corporate culture reflects the organisation’s poor internal communications.   The staff survey showed that around four in ten employees believe that their opinions do not count and they are unable to challenge decisions.  Nearly 70% of the staff believe that communications are ineffective across the BBC. At the same time, only 35% believe senior managers are good listeners.  At the same time, only 40% believe they get an effective conversation about their performance from senior managers.

If the internal communication is weak, the staff are less likely to report bad or critical news upwards.  At the same time, senior managers are unlikely to ask for it. For an organisation that prides itself on communication, its culture limits employee voice. Without a strong employee voice, staff are less likely to raise or discuss issues like harassment or other negative items with senior managers.

The Director General seemed to understand this in his first address staff in September when he said

“In my time at the BBC, I also worry that I’ve seen the quality of our own critical conversations decline. I’ve seen a culture emerge where only the experts are encouraged to say what they think. This isn’t healthy.”

Although he was talking about critical in the sense of artistic criticism, his point could be widened to include managerial conversations and organisational conversations.

For related background on this crisis, see this blog entry.

Fourth, why does there seem to be a culture of willful blindness about the critical issues such as sexual harassment?

The secondary questions that stem from this question relate to how George Entwistle is informed of allegations. What is his role in maintaining a culture that supports whistle blowers and punishes perpetrators?  The committee will want to know how the Director General understands or characterises the internal corporate culture within the BBC. How would he reconcile his understanding with what has been described in the media over the past three weeks?

Has the BBC analysed its policies and rules to see if they create a culture that deters bullying, harassment, and protects vulnerable people?  If senior managers in the past demonstrated wilful blindness to the sexual harassment and sexual abuse allegation, what is being done to stop the wilful blindness?

I believe these four questions, or themes, will draw out the critical issues within the interview.  The public need to understand the turmoil within the BBC and they need to know that the Director General understands it. Most importantly, they need to know that he knows what he needs to fix.  If he cannot articulate that view to the committee, one will have to wonder whether as the internal candidate he has begun to show the onset of the same wilful blindness that Rupert and James Murdoch suffered.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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