Eastleigh: a blow for the Westminster bubble

My first reaction to the overnight result of the Eastleigh parliamentary by election was, as a loyal Lib Dem, relief. For once the party isn’t having to explain away a lost deposit. A more considered reaction is that it shows just how out of touch with ordinary people the Westminster bubble is – I nearly wrote “has become”, but I think it has always been thus. Will they will be chastened by the experience? Alas, there is no chance of that.

By “the Westminster bubble” I mean that community of London-based politicians, journalists, lobbyists and their hangers-on, who control the main levers of political power, but who talk chiefly amongst themselves. There are plenty of enthusiastic Lib Dem bubble-types, but the Lib Dems are better grounded than most. They mainly responded to the Eastleigh challenge by actually going there and talking to the voters, rather than just trying to influence the media coverage in classic bubble fashion. The by election has been a sobering experience for the party, along with the joy of victory. First the Lib Dem vote share fell sharply, and the voters showed no great enthusiasm for the party. Second, the experience has shown just how much the party is disliked by most inhabitants of the bubble. This is hardly a surprise when it comes to Labour and Conservative politicians – but that it includes most supposedly objective news journalists, including at the BBC, is a little disappointing.

Exhibit A in this case is the Chris Rennard sexual harassment scandal. Almost all the news media have been giving huge prominence to some rather old accusations about sexual harassment by the former Lib Dem chief executive. I can do no better than refer readers to the Guardian’s fair-minded Michael White on this. The media coverage has everything to do with trying to influence the Eastleigh result against the Lib Dems, and little to do with the merits of the story. I will give a partial exemption to the BBC’s Martha Kearney on the World at One on this. She has given the story very heavy coverage – but does seem to have been genuinely interested in exploring the social issues the story raises about the behaviour of men to women. For all its flaws it sounded like good journalism to me. But the glee shown by BBC’s Today presenters about the possible effect of the story on the election was entirely another matter. The BBC should be ashamed of itself.

But the voters of Eastleigh just weren’t interested. Mild and old accusations of sexual harassment against somebody that has never held elected office was not the same thing as MPs overclaiming expenses. Neither did the other Lib Dem scandal, that of Chris Huhne’s confession of getting his wife to take his speeding points, seem to have played all that heavily. That issue was at least a legitimate issue for the by election, since Mr Huhne had been their MP, and his resignation is what triggered it. The Westminster bubble’s inhabitants seem incapable of understanding the voters’ lack of interest.

Meanwhile the bubble seems equally incapable of comprehending the extraordinary performance of Ukip, who stormed from nowhere into second place, and came  close to winning the seat. This seems to vindicate the stand of some right-wing bubblies, exemplified by Daily Mail journalists, on Europe and other issues, but Ukip themselves are complete outsiders – more so than even the Lib Dems. They have been trying to link the party’s rise to Westminster’s own obsession with the country’s relationship to the EU, and whether or not to hold a referendum. But it seems highly implausible that this had much to do with it. It seems much more likely their rise is a reflection of an anti-politics mood: a bit like the success of Beppo Grillo in Italy. Of course the journalists in the bubble are doing much to stoke the anti-politics mood, in order to help their own standing within the bubble. But this is turning out to be a highly destructive game. No doubt the journalists calculate that what they have built up, in the rise of Ukip, they can just as easily destroy when it presents a real threat. But politics as a whole is being degraded.

Instead of reflecting on this, the bubble journalists are emphasising the humiliation to the Conservative and Labour parties and their respective leaders. But for these parties the election should be seen as a useful reality check, and no more.

My politically objective advice to David Cameron is: don’t panic. The election says nothing about his recent policy move on an EU renegotiation and referendum. I think this is a brilliant move: but it is part of the groundwork for the 2015 General Election, and will show few benefits before then. The election also shows that the Lib Dems will be no pushover, even though many bubblies think the party will vanish without trace in 2015. Ukip are a challenge, but their weaknesses are poor organisation and lack of media friends. There is plenty of time for them to burn out, and the time for pricking their bubble is after the 2014 European Parliament elections, and not before. Tories might reflect that if the by election had been held under the Alternative Vote (the system that they so vehemently rejected in 2011), they they might well have won. Though, to be fair, Ukip would have been more likely victors on this occasion.

For Labour, the result is pretty unsurprising, but it may help their more enthusiastic supporters to confront reality. The public does not share their view of the economy: that austerity policies are laying criminal waste to the British economy. And it will be hard work for them to make progress outside their diminishing working class heartlands. The leadership probably realise this already, even if Polly Toynbee followers don’t. But the time to fix this is not necessarily now.

And for the Lib Dems? It’s difficult not to see this as a small, but positive step forward. The party is earning a place as part of the political establishment: a party that is capable of progressing even when the media is against it. The party can’t pretend, as it liked to, that they are super-clean, and new kids on the block. The public see all the human frailties they see in other parties. But Labour and the Conservatives have succeeded in spite this. In the end people like to vote for respectable, establishment parties when the stakes are high. Instead of trying to promote themselves as a new kind of political force, they need to focus on promoting policies and competence. For all the noise, that is happening.



BBC crisis – should it be radically reorganised?

The British political and media establishment hunts in a pack.  They pick one issue, everybody attacks it at once…and then they swiftly move on to the next.  There is no time for proper critical analysis, or maintenance of aim over any period longer than a few days, sometimes just hours.  This has been evident over the recent media scrum over the BBC and child abuse.  First it emerged that celebrity DJ the late Jimmy Savile was up to no good in the course of his work, some years ago, at the BBC.  This raised some deeper issues about the management of these sorts of risks at both the BBC and elsewhere.  Before any serious reflection  could take place on that, though, the pack had moved onto the editorial decisions of the BBC Newsnight programme when it dropped an investigation into Mr Savile in late 2011.  Then came another Newsnight investigation into a long past scandal at a Welsh children’s home, which supposedly implicated a then senior member of the Conservative Party, who wasn’t named.  The individual concerned, who was quickly outed in the usual social media, then counterattacked, and it quickly became clear that the allegations against him had no basis.  The pack moved onto the role in this of George Entwhistle, the BBC’s Director General (DG) of less than two months.  After a particularly aggressive interview on BBC radio by John Humphreys, Mr Entwhistle was considered dead meat and duly resigned.  Briefly the pack went onto the question of the BBC ‘s cumbersome management structure, before, this morning, focusing on Mr Entwhistle’s severance terms.  Each of these issues deserved more considered analysis than it generally got, although a few thoughtful articles were published (like this one from the FT’s Philip Stevens – behind paywall).  The issue of how the BBC should organise itself is a particularly difficult and interesting one, though.  This blog is a lone wolf who only occasionally hunts with the pack, so I make no apologies for backtracking a bit to give it a bit more thought.

First, the health warnings.  I have very little experience of the BBC except as a consumer of its output.  I have never worked in a media organisation.  But as a manager I have a lot of experience in the design of organisation structures.  There is a tendency for introverted managers like me to put too much weight on organisation charts, which we can play with to our heart’s content in private, at the expense of other vital organisational elements, like strategy and culture.  But they are nevertheless very important.

In the BBC’s case, the general accusation is that it has too many layers of hierarchy; it is also said that it is too complex, which probably means elements of “matrix management” and multiple reporting lines.  At the end of a BBC comedy News Quiz a couple of weeks ago, the programme writers made this point by adding into the credits all the managers responsible for the programme up to Director General.  It was a long list (including heads of comedy, Radio 4, Radio broadcast, etc.). The BBC Trust’s Chairman, Christoper Patten, voiced his frustration at the sheer number of managers at the BBC.  This, it is said, diffuses responsibility for any given decision, allowing poor decisions to go unchallenged; either that or there is excessive challenge and innovation is stifled.

But this type of structure is quite typical of large organisations dealing with complex processes.  Indeed it can be seen as the common sense way of organising things – the sort of structure most people would come up with if they were asked to organise things.  This was illustrated wonderfully when a former BBC Chairman, Michael Grade, was interviewed.  What Mr Entwhistle had lacked, he explained, was a deputy specifically responsible for keeping an eye on BBC journalism, and moving to head off trouble, or at least alerting the DG of trouble ahead.  The problem wasn’t that Mr Entwhistle had too many managers, he seemed to be saying, but that he did not have enough.

And, of course, that is exactly how such structures come into being.  If you have a particular problem or challenge, you create a management position to own it and give it due focus.  And so organisation structures grow.  This can work, but it usually doesn’t.  It is rear-view mirror driving, and can create so many conflicting tensions that organisations seize up.  Both of these problems can be overcome by the right sort of leadership at the top – which indeed is what Lord Grade also suggested.  Somebody who can cut the c**p and short-circuit the structure when required.  But this did not seem to be Mr Entwhistle’s management style, whether from inexperience or natural preference, he seemed to want to let his managers get on with their jobs.  This gives another clue as to the endurance of manager-heavy organisations – they suit big egos at the top.  They also offer lots of promotion paths to people further down the organisation.

So multi-layered management is common sense, and can work with firm leadership from the top.  That does not make them efficient.  The alternative is known as a “flat” structure, from how it looks in a classic organisation chart.  There are fewer layers of organisation (five is not untypical from cleaner to Chief Executive, perhaps seven in a very big organisation), but each manager has more other managers, on average, reporting to them (say from three to seven or eight).  This requires many less managers.  But it also requires clarity, vision and managers who don’t mind acting on initiative, and other managers who don’t mind it when they do.

How might this work for the BBC? To my inexperienced mind the obvious way to go would be to organise it into a series of separate brands aimed at particular audience segments, and each given a number of television and radio channels, and then give each head of brand a lot discretion how and what to deliver through the channels under their control.  BBC News would probably best be treated as its own brand, even if most its distribution would be through other channels.  There would be some technical functions too, with generally lower organisational status.  Duplication and clashes between the brands would be tolerated.

But this does not sound very BBC.  We like to think of it serving the nation as a whole – and duplication looks wasteful, even if in the long run it isn’t.  But maybe it would force the BBC to sharpen up its idea of who it is trying to appeal to.  That is appropriate in a multi-channel age.

But without that type of customer-centred organisation you are forced into something functional, which would soon resolve itself into something very similar to what it is now.  And no doubt that is what will eventually happen.  A few managers will be knocked out; and a few multiple reporting lines removed, amid claims of radical change.  But the underlying tension causing the complexity wouldn’t have been dealt with.

The BBC is a wonderful institution.  Its news brand is somewhat tarnished, not just by these recent episodes, but by sloppy reporting generally.  And, as Philip Stephens suggests, it is perhaps too beholden to celebrity presenters.  But it’s still the best there is on TV and radio.  And at least this episode shows that it can report objectively about itself (how unlike the Murdoch empire’s papers).  It won’t be the end of the world if it does not have the courage to reorganise itself properly.


Hacking scandal – enjoy it while it lasts

We haven’t seen anything like this since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009.  Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire is the centre of a media and political feeding frenzy provoked initially by outrage over mobile phone hacking, and now taking in dodgy relationships with the Police and management cover-up and dissembling.  Murdoch has had to close one highly successful paper, and now he’s  withdrawn his bid for 100% of BSkyB.  Commentators are using metaphors such as earthquakes and the shifting of tectonic plates.

Frankly I find it impossible not to enjoy this spectacle.  Murdoch and his acolytes are hard-nosed businessmen who would not have thought twice about meting out the sort of stuff they are now victims of.  We can only imaging what The Sun would be saying about the photogenic Rebecca Brooks, the senior manager at the centre of the scandal, where it not part of the Murdoch empire.  What’s more Mr Murdoch clearly had undue political influence, and liked hold politicians in fear – and now it is wonderful to see how politicians behave once that fear is lost.  And his influence was in no way benign, in favour of biased news, extreme Euroscepticism, and stoking up prejudice generally.

But will any lasting good come of it?  It doesn’t bother me that other, equally evil press barons have so far escaped unscathed.  Indeed widening the scope might diminish the punishment – it is surely more effective to totally dismantle one evil empire than damage several a bit.  The others will draw conclusions from Murdoch’s fate.

But the political earthquake of the MPs expenses scandal did not change very much, after its deserved and undeserved victims were buried.  The same prejudices and appetites that Murdoch fed on persist.  Others will move into any empty space that he vacates.  And it is almost impossible to regulate it properly.  It is difficult to believe that the public enquiry will change very much.  Indeed the political consensus around keeping its scope very broad might serve to weaken and dilute its effect.

But in amongst this battle there is one thing worth fighting to protect.  That is the regulation of news broadcasting in TV and radio, and the primacy of the BBC.  As this Bagehot column makes clear (see the end of the article), Murdoch clearly wants to establish a Fox News in the UK to do to TV what his print newspapers have done to that medium.  The BSkyB takeover was part of that strategy.  The baleful influence of this is all too clear from this poll which shows that TV and radio are the only medium that retains a high degree of trust in the UK, and that distrust of the press here is much higher than elsewhere in Europe.

The savages were circling.  They’ve been seen off for now.  But we must stay vigilant.