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.