Does the BBC really have the courage to come clean?

SavileTOTPUnless you sit atop a remote mountain or cast yourself away on a desert island, and as long as you have no means of digital connectivity with you, it’s impossible to avoid seeing and hearing about Jimmy Savile.

The continuing reporting on the revelations about the late alleged child abuser is relentless. Each day, more stories emerge of what the man did who used his status as a TV entertainer, charity fundraiser and society do-gooder as a cover for the sexual abuse he’s accused of meting out to young girls (typically), all accompanied by constant questions about how he managed to get away with it all over a period spanning more than four decades.

During much of that time, Savile worked for the BBC – and the broadcaster is squarely at the centre of a mega-scandal so awful it stabs our society in its very heart. It’s also one of global interest. Indeed, some of the most intelligent analytical reporting on the matter as it affects the BBC is in a Reuters report on October 25 which explores the aspect of trying to find out who in the BBC knew what about Savile and his behaviours, spotlighting the key issue:

[...] The BBC scandal is so long-running, so multifaceted and so sordid that it could potentially injure everyone who has worked at the organization over the past 40 years – up to Thompson but including the janitors who clean the BBC’s studio dressing rooms – even if they’re guilty of nothing.

The ‘Thompson’ mentioned by Reuters – a key focus in their report – is Mark Thompson, Director-General (equivalent to CEO in the broad business world) of the BBC until he quit in August 2012 to take up a new job as CEO of the New York Times Co next month.

Thompson’s successor, George Entwistle, has had a true baptism of fire with the Savile crisis since taking up his job in September. He’s under fierce criticism on many sides for his lacklustre handling of the whole affair. On October 23, he was grilled by members the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. From watching much of it live on TV, my impression was of a man who undoubtedly is well-meaning and, well, nice, but is out of his depth with trying to manage this crisis.

Still, Entwistle is the man currently in charge of the BBC. Part of his job is leading the organization in the face of what some are calling the most serious crisis confronting the BBC in half a century. Looking at what’s going on at the moment, I think that’s a valid description.

Yet while the current leader is where the buck stops today, the Savile crisis spans so many years; and – as the Reuters report puts it – it is so long-running, multifaceted and sordid, leaders going back over the decades must also shoulder substantial shares of the pain being borne by “the janitors who clean the BBC’s studio dressing rooms.”

Without doubt, this is a time of pain, not only for the BBC but also for this country as our faith, trust and belief in an institution that is part of the very fabric of our society is being tested, on a daily basis.

More pragmatically, the Savile revelations and the subsequent accusations swirling around the BBC match the definition of a smouldering crisis:

These are situations when leaders are blamed for the crisis and its subsequent effect on the institution in question.

Sadly, it’s only another facet of what seems to be ingrained behaviour by some in positions of power and influence in our society and an ugly trend: add it to phone hacking, corporate selfishness and the cynicism of politicians – the resulting picture is a messy one.

Can the BBC in particular emerge from the desperate place in which people, and the acts and events they’re responsible for, have dumped it? I don’t think there’s a prospect of effective crisis management – let alone any talk of healing, any talk of “corporate catharsis” – until all the dirt is dished. Even then, it may be too awful to manage without significant structural change in the organization.

Today, BBC chairman Chris Patten says he’s determined to get to the bottom of it all. Does he and the overall leadership have the courage to really come clean?

(Image via Music Week)

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.