It didn’t start with Savile: BBC’s internal crisis has been brewing for years

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The headlines about the Jimmy Savile scandal have rocked the BBC to its core.  They have revealed that the BBC, long considered the standard in British Broadcasting, if not the world, has a corporate cultural crisis. Some observers will believe the Savile revelations created the crisis.  For others, it may be the sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced.  For many, it will be the editorial decisions to stop a Newsnight programme about Savile.  All of these are but symptoms the organisation’s deeper malaise. The crisis has its origins in three interrelated three areas that show how and why the BBC’s corporate culture is in crisis.

BBC’s past is its future: are there more revelations

First, the corporate culture is not changing fast enough. In many ways, the hiring of George Entwistle has only reaffirmed the crisis.  His hiring reaffirms the cultural path dependency. What that means is that the previous culture, the behaviours, and the beliefs that enabled Savile are still alive, even if they are slowly dying, at the BBC.  The corporation has not worked hard enough or deep enough to root out the behaviour.  The allegations both past and present show that the organisation has a long way to go before it can be sure that the behaviour is the extreme exception.  What makes the issue particularly troubling is that the allegations are about senior managers or senior “talent”, who have been promoted through the organisation. A person’s predilection to sexual harassment does not begin with promotion to a senior role. In effect, they do not become a “rotten apple” because they are promoted; they are displaying that behaviour before they are promoted.

The sexual harassment remains embedded, in large part, because the organisation’s hierarchy appears resistant to critical upward communication.  The senior managers do not want to have bad news raised about their colleagues or the “talent”, which in turns sends several messages throughout the organisation. First, the unpunished transgressions by senior managers or “talent” show a deep inequality within the organisation.  Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. Second, it shows, implicitly, that this behaviour is tolerated so long as the “talent” produces and the problem can be contained. The problem is allowed to fester because no one believes they can speak up about it with any effect. Instead, the attitude becomes one where a person says, “As long as I am safe, I can ignore it.”  The issue, though, is not simply the past employees. The problem is at the heart of what is happening at the BBC today and the Director General admitted as much in his first speech to staff.

 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.

The BBC has a crisis of internal communication that is holding it back.

Second, the BBC’s culture appears to be one where negative feedback is not encouraged. As mentioned above, the organisation is suffering from what Denis Tourish describes as the automatic vigilance effect and the ingratiation effect.  When senior managers react instinctively against bad news, it is called the automatic vigilance effect. Senior managers will ignore or dismiss bad news.   The ingratiation effect is staff deciding to only give good news. Staff will exaggerate how much they agree with senior managers. The two effects interact to the extent that senior managers do not know what is happening in their organisations.

The evidence is found in BBC internal documents. The survey results published in the staff newsletter provides the evidence. The survey suggests strongly that BBC employees do not have a robust employee voice. At the same time, the staff do not believe that it communicates very well across the organisation. The staff consider senior managers poor listeners who are unlikely to consider their views or give effective feedback.  With 40% of the staff believing their opinions do not count and they cannot challenge decisions, and 70% believing the internal communications are ineffective!  The statistics paint a damning picture of the corporate culture. As Denis Tourish pointed out, critical upwards communication is critical to a successful strategy.  The staff need to be able to speak up and speak out when strategy is being formulated and implemented.

The internal dialogue between senior managers and staff that is needed for success is not happening. Only 35% of the staff rate senior managers as good listeners. While 40% believe they have effective conversations about their performance with senior managers.  The numbers tell the story of an organisation with poor internal communications. Senior managers appear out of touch with their staff. The chances that difficult or bad news, like sexual abuse allegations, will be communicated upwards is reduced. The effect may be unintentional, but the evidence is there in the BBC staff survey.  The contrast with the 2010 survey, which can be seen here, is stark.

How things are done, who is hired, and who is promoted reveal the culture

Third, the crisis is more than an editorial decision. The crisis is about the organisational culture. In other words, it is about how things get things done around in the BBC. In a robust ethical corporate culture, the Savile and other allegations would have reported sooner and publicly resolved.  In a robust corporate culture, rogue employees are rare. Where the culture works, the systems, the rules, and the underlying way of working cut the chance that rogue employees are hired or promoted and more likely to be fired.  In a robust and ethical corporate culture, those that act inappropriately no matter their “talent” or “success” are removed like “bad apples” from a barrel.

When there are no ethical standards displayed corporately, as it seems in the BBC, [I searched the BBC website but could not find a specific document that was a corporate or ethical standard employees were expected to follow].  When the company does not express the corporate ethical culture that is expected, then the company, its survival, becomes the ethical standard. The company will do what it must do to survive. As a result, the highest view for a senior officer becomes “I must protect the organisation”.  The ethical horizon is limited so the officer does not seek to deter unethical behaviour so much as to keep it from harming the organisation.  We can see this is the allegations that the “talent” are protected from harassment claims.

Who is hired and why you promote them will decide the rest.

What emerges from the allegations is the clear picture that “talent” within the organisation is rewarded and protected.  Yes, there are examples where the “talent” gets publicly reprimanded or fired for public behaviour. The Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand episode is the most famous. Yet, the less public behaviour of sexual harassment does not get the same attention.  When people make allegations and nothing appears to happen, the organisation sends an implicit, if not explicit, message about the behaviour that is acceptable. Moreover, the way the BBC promoted and rewarded people in these roles shows what is valued.  As the Director General said in his first speech, the focus is on creative people.

“Starting today, I intend to change the way we’re led to put the emphasis where it belongs – on creative people doing creative things; on our audiences and the exceptional quality of work they deserve.”

The Director General used the term creative 29 times and never used the word ethical. One could suggest that he was reaffirming the culture within the organisation that creative “talent” would be rewarded. By doing this, he was sending an obvious message, that the organisation is in the creative arts business.  The secondary message was path dependent because he was reinforcing the cultural message that creative talent will be rewarded.

What is interesting as well, given the results of the staff survey, is that he mentioned the staff survey only three times. The three references did not address the staff concerns about voice, or about the need to improve communication across the organisation. Most importantly, there was no reference to the result from the previous survey in 2010, which would show a stark contrast.  When the Director General set out his vision, he missed a chance to change the organisational culture.  In that sense, he demonstrated the path dependency within the BBC. The question is how you change that approach.

 What is to be done?

The question that the BBC needs to answer is how it checks its ethics and integrity.  Has integrity and trust been taken for granted for too long at the BBC because of its charter?  The BBC needs to build an internal culture that resists such pressures to bow to talent and senior managers.  The organisation, not just the individual employees, has to be ethically strong.  If ethics are not addressed or sacrificed for talent, then the organisation will fail. What is clear is that an organisation will succeed to the extent that it, and its employees, acts ethically.  How this is demonstrated is reiterating that there is a law higher than the organisation and that talent, no matter how brilliant, is not above the law or above ethical behaviour.

To improve the corporate culture, Denis Tourish and his work on critical upwards communication would be useful.  As Entwistle admitted, the BBC needs to have the critical conversations to improve. What is needed is a way for senior managers and staff to share openly critical feedback when making implementing the strategy. The Director General’s initial steps have been uncertain. The announced restructures suggest more is needed to communicate to the staff before the change occurs. If the BBC cannot create the strategic dialogue, the crisis will reach a breaking point. No restructuring is going to change a corporate culture that is breaking down.

The BBC is in crisis and the response has to be as robust as the threat. As the threat is inside the organisation, its culture, the question is whether an insider like George Entwistle can fix it.


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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