Child Abuse or FOI bullying – it’s one and the same problem at the BBC

On the back of today’s Christopher Booker column in the Sunday Telegrapha comment left by “michel” at Bishop Hill deserves as much attention as possible: because it’s not by chance that the BBC is mired into scandals.

What people are saying is that there is institutional dysfunctionality at the BBC. You will recall the remarks from the Lawrence inquiry, that there was ‘institutional racism’ at the Met. The implication was not that it was racist at a policy level. But the implication was that it was more than a few individual aberrations. They’re definitely not saying that the BBC ‘consciously allowed this to happen’ as a policy level.

They are saying that there’s a culture in which standards of behaviour are not enforced and may not exist at all. The claim is that Saville and his collaborators were widely known about by individuals at a personal level but that they turned a blind eye, and that the institution at a policy level avoided confronting the issue. They are saying that people behaved like this because they believed that this was just the norm at the BBC.

They did not believe child abuse was the norm. They believed that turning a blind eye was the norm.

People here are then going on to say something else. They are saying that there are key elements to the culture of turning a blind eye which can be seen in other unrelated episodes. They take the issue of the seminar and the 28 and the FOI request, and see some of the key elements to the toleration of Saville in this episode too. The elements are secretiveness, lack of any real management, indulgence of groups who are within the fold, closing ranks against any critics. The lack of any standards and any culture of enforcement of those standards. They are saying a group, as long at it has certain key buttons pressed, is going to be able to avoid scrutiny and behave by most standards very bady in a variety of ways, some worse than others, because of the mixture of the turn a blind eye culture, and what they see as kneejerk reactions of approval to groups within the BBC who are ideololgically correct.

So, for instance, Saville touched the charity and the viewing figures buttons. The journalistic bias that the seminar introduced, they are saying, was a total breach of integrity and impartiality, but the turn a blind eye culture allowed it (and defended it in the FOI case) because the hot button of environmentalism and endorsement of CAGW meant that it was generally approved of as a direction. This allowed the implications of the policy for journalistic integrity to avoid notice or intervention.

They are not, obviously, saying that the episodes were morally comparable, or that the FOI episode was as bad as the Saville one. Obviously it was not, it lasted a shorter period of time, and it was a breach of journalistic integrity, not the infliction of damage on children.

When we think about institutions we need to look at them in the round, and if we are going to accuse a culture, we need to point to more than one manifestation of it. One product safety failure is an aberration which we deal with by a recall. A series, even if some lead to less human tragedy than others, is evidence of a pattern and a cultural issue.

What people are saying is basically that the BBC has a problem. It seems unable to enforce standards of behaviour on its staff and contributors. It may not even have any to enforce. They are tying this to guaranteed tax payer funding. Their argument is, this and lack of public accountability either through market mechanisms or through Ofcom has produced a culture in which abuses of various sorts have flourished. They are not saying that all the abuses that have flourished are comparable in gravity or extent. They are saying that they flourished in the same fertile soil.

Personally I cannot see the BBC News department survive without severing most if not all ties to the Corporation.

Its a serious argument. It tends logically to a change of structure. For instance, making subscription voluntary. Regulation by Ofcom. Or sharing the license fee income if its kept with other broadcasters. Its not an argument [snip] that some of the abuses were worse, a lot worse, than others.