Getting a grip on the lurching crisis at the BBC

georgeentwistleWatching events this weekend that make up the still-unfolding crisis at the BBC has been an experience of mixed emotions, ranging from bewilderment to despair to resignation (in two senses of that word).

Much of that surrounds the (now ex) Director-General George Entwistle, pictured, an honourable man whose short tenure in the job did little that demonstrated that BBC leadership had a firm grip on matters.

At the heart of this crisis right now are two specific investigations:

  1. A police-led criminal investigation into allegations of child sex abuse by the deceased BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile – and possibly (probably) BBC staff and others – since the 1950s that burst into public light in October following the broadcast of an investigative report by ITV’s current affairs programme Exposure. That followed a BBC editorial decision not to go ahead with its own investigative report on the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs programme.
  2. An investigation into allegations of child abuse in north Wales children’s homes in the 1970s and 1980s, ordered by the Prime Minister, following broadcast of a BBC Newsnight programme on November 2 that alleged involvement by a prominent Conservative MP from the 1980s; he wasn’t named in the programme but his identity subsequently emerged. He denies such allegations and there’s a lot of talk about legal action against the BBC.

See these two Wikipedia entries for detailed accounts of these awful events:

In the midst of this poisonous mixture has been mounting criticism and questions over the leadership of the BBC, how the editorial processes and procedures work, even the very structure and future of the organization as an independent public service broadcaster.

All of that came to a head on Saturday evening when the Director-General George Entwistle resigned in the face of insistent criticisms of his leadership and growing calls for his resignation. He’s been replaced in the interim by Tim Davie, a BBC man with a marketing background who’s due to be CEO of BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial enterprise, on December 1 – less than three weeks’ away.

What seems to have been the final straw for Entwistle was his disastrous performance in a 15-minute interview on the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs radio show Today on Saturday morning.

The interviewer was the show’s co-host John Humphrys, a veteran journalist with a reputation as one who takes no prisoners in his hand-to-hand combat style of interviewing on live radio he brings to bear at times, especially with politicians and business leaders – and it was on full display on Saturday morning.

I listened to the interview and it was a painful experience. It became clear to me, if it hadn’t already, that George Entwistle – an honourable and decent man, facts of which I have no doubt – was woefully out of his depth. Not only in participating in an interview of this type but also on the fundamental and far more critical issue of leadership and knowing what was going on – and with the latter, it became clear he didn’t seem to know much.

As I listened, I wondered how on earth the man at the top of this organization could come to such an important interview so seemingly unprepared. My thoughts focused on a specific aspect of Entwistle’s leadership behaviour, all to do with his apparent detachment from fast-moving events.

Take this segment, for instance, from the transcript of the interview, in which Humphry’s asks Entwistle when he knew about the north Wales abuse report and whether he’d seen a tweet that was posted before the programme was broadcast, which flagged up that it would be making some serious allegations:

[Read more…]

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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Quartz digital delivery starts Sept 24

quartzblockAn interesting experiment in the future of mainstream news media and its publishing platform goes public on Monday September 24 with the official launch of Quartz, a new digital business magazine from US publisher Atlantic Media.

Quartz is intended primarily for consumption on tablets and other mobile devices. There is no print edition.

I’ve been paying attention to developments at Quartz as it gears up for its imminent launch since I interviewed editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney in London in July for an FIR Interview podcast.

Among the wide-ranging topics we discussed in that interview, Delaney shared his thinking on a probable media landscape in 2013 and beyond as digital delivery becomes increasingly significant for mainstream publishers and influential business readers alike; how Quartz will be monetized through advertising support; and the type of journalist he is keen to hire for the fledging venture.

On that latter point, recent press releases from Quartz state:

[…] Delaney has assembled an all-star team from the world’s most prestigious news organizations – a staff of journalists who have reported from 115 countries and speak 19 different languages.

It looks promising for its goal to reach and connect with the type of individual the magazine desires to be its reader:

[…] a new class of global business executives who have more in common with each other than they do with their countrymen. They spend large parts of their physical and intellectual lives outside of their native lands. They access information on mobile devices that are ever at their sides. They know that the most dynamic businesses are rarely found in the old corridors of commerce and power – and confidently embrace the disrupters as part of their networks. In many ways, they are the arbiters of what “world class” really means.

Look out for Quartz on Monday. Meanwhile, get a sense of the people in their blog. And why not tweet to light up the Quartz newsroom.

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Being inclusive about PR ethics

changingalightbulbOne of the great things about the Ethics Awareness Month initiative from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is that it helps focus clear attention on a core issue in the profession that, in many people’s minds, needs that attention.

It doesn’t matter a bit that the PRSA’s initiative happens to be organized by the professional body that represents practitioners in the USA. To give full credit to them (as well as recognize some good common sense at work), it’s very open – anyone with a point of view and some good ideas on ethics can contribute no matter where they are and whether they’re a member of the PRSA (or any other body) or not.

One feature of the initiative is the weekly tweet chat anyone can participate in around the hashtag #prethics. I took part in the first one on September 6 organized jointly by PRSA and the CIPR in the UK. It was a great discussion.

I wrote about it and the copy of my post that was syndicated in the CIPR’s The Conversation blog attracted some discussion in the comments.

Discussion on this topic is terrific, just what we need to have wherever it takes place. I hope the exchanges of views to my post contribute to some measurable course of action on this topic.

Yet it seems to me that there’s a risk of slipping into a cul-de-sac over territorial rights, being side-tracked by a debate about which professional body should lead the charge on the ethics debate.

That’s the least relevant matter, in my view. I don’t care who leads any charge as long as this important issue is on the agenda and that a clear course of action emerges. Heck, I’m not a PRSA member nor a CIPR one yet I find the debate wholly relevant to my practice as a communicator and I engage in discussion with peers who are members of these associations as well as others like CPRS in Canada. PR is just one part of my professional communication activity, one reason why the IABC is my professional association of choice for more than 20 years.

What I’d like to see is our lightbulb moment on ethics in the profession – where anyone, anywhere, is part of the discussion – not a discussion about how many PR organizations does it take to change the lightbulb.

If you have an opinion, why not chime in? Here, there or anywhere you feel like. Just connect your comments to the #prethics hashtag.

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A tipping point sets a milestone for mainstream media evolution

thankyouandgoodbyeI’ve been reading through the News of The World today. It’s the first time I’ve ever bought this newspaper – and the last time, too, as this was its last edition.

The closure that concludes 168 years of newspaper publishing is a sorry end to a popular tabloid that consistently served up the type of fare that captured the attention of 7.5 million Britons every Sunday.

At its peak in recent years, it claimed to enjoy the world’s biggest readership for an English-language newspaper, a view supported by circulation and readership figures for 2010.

The demise of the News of The World (NoTW) came about as a consequence of the phone hacking scandal which has dominated the news in the UK, in the mainstream and the social spaces, every day for the past few weeks and looks set to continue dominating in the coming weeks as events continue developing.

It’s a story with a compelling cast of characters that include the paper’s ultimate owner, News Corporation; the head of that company, Rupert Murdoch, and his ambitions to acquire a golden media prize in the form of pay-TV satellite broadcaster BSkyB; the CEO of the operating company that owns NoTW, Rebekah Brooks (and one-time editor of the paper); the 200 or so so employees who lose their jobs; some officers in the Metropolitan Police who, it’s alleged, enjoyed loadsa money bunged their way by NoTW journalists; the government and Prime Ministers past and present and their cosiness with News Corp and its executives; and the tipping point that led to the paper’s closure – the private citizens whose voicemail accounts were illegally hacked into, their messages listened to and, in some cases, allegedly deleted.

It’s precisely the kind of story that the News of The World would relish in publishing.

But that’s not to be.  You can get a sense of the paper, as I did from leafing through it, with a slideshow of photos that I took today.

(If you don’t see the slideshow embedded here, view it at Flickr.)

So while stories swirl about what it all means and what’s next, opinions and commentary abound and conspiracy theories magnify, I look at my print copy of the News of The World and wonder what can fill the vacuum it leaves.

Maybe something that’s not the obvious, eg, another printed newspaper. Maybe not only another printed newspaper.

My own feeling is that the demise of the NoTW is one further milestone on the evolutionary road to a media landscape that will truly be a hybrid, with content produced by professional journalists combined symbiotically with that of so-called citizen journalists. That means people like me and possibly you – we’re not journalists but we report, we write commentary and opinion, and we’re published, mostly online.

Frameworks are already here. Now things move faster. You can see it coming.

(My podcasting partner Shel Holtz and I discuss at some length our views about this still-developing story in the latest episode of our weekly business podcast which we recorded today. Do take a listen when it’s published tomorrow, July 11, and share your thoughts.)

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On the death of a mainstream medium


It’s an astonishing end to a newspaper that published its first edition in 1843 and grew to become the biggest-circulation English-language weekly newspaper in the world, with a readership averaging close to 7.5 million in 2010.

That newspaper is the News of The World (NoTW). After 168 years of publishing, this Sunday, July 10, is the day when the last edition will be printed and then the paper will be closed.

Part of Rupert Murdoch‘s News International since 1969 (which owns, among other media, Times Group and The Sun in the UK and Dow Jones and Fox News Channel in the USA), the NoTW has been embroiled in a huge and unsavoury scandal that began with the illegal access of the telephone records and voicemails of members of the royal family and celebrities and, in recent years, ordinary people (what everyone is calling “phone hacking”); and, relatedly, bribing officers of the Metropolitan Police. All of this goes back to the early part of this century.

If you just Google the phrase “phone hacking scandal news of the world“, you’ll find an enormous amount of reporting along with commentary and opinion of every political hue, much of it over the past week in particular united in its clear sense of disgust and outrage. One good detailed account of the unfolding scandal is “News of the World phone hacking affair” on Wikipedia.

In recent days, the scandal has grown epicly as revelations seemed to come daily of yet more outrageous allegations. British blue-chip companies who spend millions advertising in NoTW suddenly began backing away and pulling their ads. Questions were being asked in Parliament and people were becoming ever more vocal in their demands that heads must roll at News International.

With Rupert Murdoch publicly backing the News International leadership led by its CEO Rebekah Brooks (who was editor of NoTW during part of the scandal-hit period), you had to wonder what would happen next. The scandal was continuing to grow – it had clearly become a full-blown crisis affecting the reputation of other News International titles in the UK in the minds of advertisers (if not the readers) and the entire Murdoch empire, with additional speculation that the scandal would likely impact Murdoch’s plans to acquire the entirety of BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster.

And so, the bombshell news came. Here is the text of the internal announcement (published all over the public media) made to NoTW employees by James Murdoch today:

I have important things to say about the News of the World and the steps we are taking to address the very serious problems that have occurred.

It is only right that you as colleagues at News International are first to hear what I have to say and that you hear it directly from me. So thank you very much for coming here and listening.

You do not need to be told that The News of the World is 168 years old. That it is read by more people than any other English language newspaper. That it has enjoyed support from Britain’s largest advertisers. And that it has a proud history of fighting crime, exposing wrong-doing and regularly setting the news agenda for the nation.

When I tell people why I am proud to be part of News Corporation, I say that our commitment to journalism and a free press is one of the things that sets us apart. Your work is a credit to this.

The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.

The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself.

In 2006, the police focused their investigations on two men. Both went to jail. But the News of the World and News International failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoing that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose.

Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued.

As a result, the News of the World and News International wrongly maintained that these issues were confined to one reporter. We now have voluntarily given evidence to the police that I believe will prove that this was untrue and those who acted wrongly will have to face the consequences.

This was not the only fault.

The paper made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts. This was wrong. The Company paid out-of-court settlements approved by me. I now know that I did not have a complete picture when I did so. This was wrong and is a matter of serious regret.

Currently, there are two major and ongoing police investigations. We are cooperating fully and actively with both. You know that it was News International who voluntarily brought evidence that led to opening Operation Weeting and Operation Elveden. This full cooperation will continue until the Police’s work is done.

We have also admitted liability in civil cases. Already, we have settled a number of prominent cases and set up a Compensation Scheme, with cases to be adjudicated by former High Court judge Sir Charles Gray. Apologising and making amends is the right thing to do.

Inside the Company, we set up a Management and Standards Committee that is working on these issues and that has hired Olswang to examine past failings and recommend systems and practices that over time should become standards for the industry. We have committed to publishing Olswang’s terms of reference and eventual recommendations in a way that is open and transparent.

We have welcomed broad public inquiries into press standards and police practices and will cooperate with them fully.

So, just as I acknowledge we have made mistakes, I hope you and everyone inside and outside the Company will acknowledge that we are doing our utmost to fix them, atone for them, and make sure they never happen again.

Having consulted senior colleagues, I have decided that we must take further decisive action with respect to the paper.

This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World. Colin Myler will edit the final edition of the paper.

In addition, I have decided that all of the News of the World’s revenue this weekend will go to good causes.

While we may never be able to make up for distress that has been caused, the right thing to do is for every penny of the circulation revenue we receive this weekend to go to organisations – many of whom are long-term friends and partners – that improve life in Britain and are devoted to treating others with dignity.

We will run no commercial advertisements this weekend. Any advertising space in this last edition will be donated to causes and charities that wish to expose their good works to our millions of readers.

These are strong measures. They are made humbly and out of respect. I am convinced they are the right thing to do.

Many of you, if not the vast majority of you, are either new to the Company or have had no connection to the News of the World during the years when egregious behaviour occurred.

I can understand how unfair these decisions may feel. Particularly, for colleagues who will leave the Company. Of course, we will communicate next steps in detail and begin appropriate consultations.

You may see these changes as a price loyal staff at the News of the World are paying for the transgressions of others. So please hear me when I say that your good work is a credit to journalism. I do not want the legitimacy of what you do to be compromised by acts of others. I want all journalism at News International to be beyond reproach. I insist that this organisation lives up to the standard of behaviour we expect of others. And, finally, I want you all to know that it is critical that the integrity of every journalist who has played fairly is restored.

Thank you for listening.

While the announcement late afternoon today of the closure of the NoTW comes as quite a shock,  it’s actually a good and just decision. I believe it demonstrates quite clearly that the owners of the NoTW are listening to what people are saying and taking serious note of highly critical and exceptionally angry public opinion and sentiment, and acting in a decisive manner that directly addresses and responds to those concerns.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that this means things have come to a nice conclusion. On the contrary, police investigations continue and no doubt criminal charges will eventually be brought as and when individuals are identified who, it will be alleged, committed criminal acts. I would image civil lawsuits will be in there somewhere as well.

Cynics might say that this closure is a stunt to enable News International to continue NoTW under a different guise, maybe “The Sunday Sun” (keep an eye on the website, apparently registered just a couple of days ago). I hope not.

What effect will this have on other mainstream media especially print, in the eyes and minds of the great British public, aka newspaper readers, not to mention advertisers? Will we look on this as a milestone that dealt a severe blow to traditional printed newspapers and trust in journalism, and the opening of a new chapter – an increase in online content and readership – maybe accelerated by the arrival of a new disruptor such as The Huffington Post UK which started publishing yesterday (and let me disclose: I am a blogger for the HuffPost UK).

What a mess and an ignominious end to a newspaper with quite a history. Whatever you think of the paper itself, it was part of the fabric of the history of British journalism and newspaper publishing, done to death by bad people.