Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Broadcasting's basic rule : if you've got a tricky job to do - hide behind some junior patsy

In a comment on a recent Jimmy Savile-related post (which you can read here), fellow-blogger David Moss quotes the 2008 recollections of a former radio producer on the perils faced by editorial staff dealing with front-of-camera “stars” at the BBC. Jenni Russell’s Guardian account of how senior executives will happily sacrifice more junior members of a production team rather than confront poor performance or unacceptable behaviour brought back some decidedly unpleasant memories:

Early in my broadcasting career I was assigned the job of producing a radio star. The editor told me confidentially that the great man was not at the top of his game. It was my task to radically improve the quality of what went out. As a young, earnest producer, I took it seriously. My duty was clear, and it was to the audience. 
On day one I suggested how we might rewrite a slightly misleading script, and the star shouted at me for my temerity. On day two I recut a package and the star ordered me out of the editing suite in a rage. On day three I asked him to add a question to an interview. He slammed down the talkback button and stormed off to see the editor. On day four I was moved and a more amenable producer was brought in ...
You can read the whole piece here.

I learned, relatively late in my career, how futile it is to expect support from senior management if you go up against a "star". I was once the editor of a TV current affairs show with four different presenters. After I had the temerity to criticise one of them for being rude to a guest on air (after I'd talked it over with my bosses, of course), he made it clear to me that he thought the show was beneath him, and that he was distinctly unimpressed by the grade of guests we had on – where were the cabinet ministers, the movers and shakers, the big guns who appeared on every other show? (They’re on every other show, I pointed out – which was why we didn’t want them on ours.)

I suggested he might be happier working elsewhere, because we had no intention of changing what was generally viewed as a successful format just to suit him. I then asked senior management to get rid of the presenter, as he was getting on everyone’s wick and his performance was  going downhill rapidly. Management agreed Something Had To Be Done. So, when I left the programme some nine months later,they ditched the other three presenters, and retained the one who should have been axed. Thanks for your support, guys!

I went through a rough patch with one of the other presenters, who seemed distracted, and kept letting guests off the hook with pat-ball questions. I had him in, showed him a tape of some recent performances and pointed out where he was going wrong. After the session, he turned to me and said, “I’ve worked in broadcasting for twenty years and this is the first time anyone ever criticised me to my face. Makes a nice change. Thank you.” (He was a nice guy, and I'm pretty sure he meant it.)

That tells you everything you need to know about the way “stars” are habitually treated in broadcasting - even in News, where the atmosphere tends to be pretty robust. Imagine what lowly programme producers have to put up with from big name presenters on entertainment shows, where the bosses are even more cravenly spineless when it comes to dealing with the talent (Jonathan Ross claimed he wasn’t even told that his BBC contract wasn’t going to be renewed – there’s gutsy management for you!). Jenni Russell is quite right: in many areas of the BBC, there appeared to be an unwritten rule that criticism of a star has to be delivered by a junior patsy who, if the star cuts up rough, can then be blamed by his or her superiors for “getting it wrong” (i.e. trying to do their job).

Junior staff also come in handy as avatars whose main role is to prevent senior executives having to directly confront other senior executives. “Hi, it’s Jim. I’m told your boy Grønmark has gone and done x. I thought we’d explicity agreed that my team would do x.” “Gosh, sorry Jim. He’s obviously got hold of the wrong end of the stick! I’ll give him a stiff talking-to. And apologise to your people on my behalf. Won’t happen again! Still on for lunch on Tuesday? Great. Ciao!

I had any number of faults as a boss, but getting junior staff to fight my battles wasn't one of them. What kind of leadership is that?  

On the editorial interference front, I still suspect that George Entwhistle was mainly doing his best not to step on News's toes. But I could be wrong. The name of the game for senior executives in broadcasting is not to be left holding the parcel when the music stops. One way of achieving this is simply to refuse to handle the parcel - which could partly explains Entwhistle’s “three wise monkeys” approach to the Savile item: if it all goes tits up, the theory goes, your ignorance will shield you from sharing the blame. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work if you're the Director-General – after all, everything is your responsibility. A few weeks into the job, and George Entwhistle is finding that out the hardest way imaginable.


  1. A really good piece of journalism. Well done, you and your friend, David Moss. Wish that my parents had sent me to a good school.

    1. Why, thank you, SDG - but given that your school produced Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (!), playwright and actor (including The Day Today and various Alan Partridge appearances), Patrick Marber, and the distinguished historian, Andrew Roberts, you hardly went to St Mandela's, Hackney, did you? And at least your school wasn't responsible for the handle-bar moustached comedian Jimmy Edwards, who kept some very odd company in his declining years. (Mind you, I've just noticed that we also produced that wonderful actor Nigel Green, who was so brilliant in Zulu - "Steady, lads!").

  2. I favour a variation on the Moss theory put forward in response to your earlier post. It's always easier in a large bureaucracy to avoid or postpone a decision than take one. It's at least plausible that some suit at the top of the Beeb faced with broadcasting at the same time two conflicting programmes about Savile, one a hagiographic celeb-fest and the other a 10 minute slot in Newsnight exposing him as a perv, took the line of least resistance.

    The one that was finished and had cost more would naturally be favoured in a corporation where the accountants are on the hunt for waste. Maybe the makers of the other one could be asked to look for more victims and a bit more evidence for the next 6 monthsor so. Till then, postponed? is that OK?

  3. Ah, but you're evidently much better-versed in these practices than the BBC's executive whipper-snappers. What you suggest - i.e. postponement - might very well have worked. Whoever flat-out cancelled the thing made a crude error of judgment. Afterwards, they could have maintained that the reason for going ahead with the hagiographies while continuing to work on the Savile story was so as "not to arouse suspicion" outside the BBC, thereby spoiling a huge self-lacerating journalist triumph.

    You should hire yourself out to them - they evidently need your silky skills!

  4. Not at all. I'd be totally out of my depth among the self-selecting oligarchs of the BBC. I'm hoping that one of the American home improvement service providers that have started to take an interest in your blog might make me an offer. I once put up a shelf that was only a couple of degrees off true.

    1. Now there's Jungian synchronicity in action: your comment arrived just as I was writing a post about spam comments:

  5. What is now utterly baffling is that the BBC, having ducked the Savile exposure in a pretty puillanimous way, now seem to be trying to compensate by getting all News of the World in your face on a Conservative who appears to be completely innocent of its charges. 5 minutes on the Internet takes you to the Waterhouse report which deals rationally with the allegation and dismisses it. What sort of idiots does the BBC now employ. It's pretty basic stuff.

    Sadly, the internet also takes you to the witterings of beyond bonkers lizard man David Icke who peddles the same discredited allegation as fact. Is it possible that the Beeb has re-employed its former Sports Correspondent as the senior researcher and fact-checker on its current affairs programmes? You'd hope but not expect the ITV breakfast show to have intelligent backroom staff whose job it is to check the accuracy of what they broadcast. With the BBC, you take it for granted that they do. Clearly they don't. I can't see Gormless George and Fatty Pang surviving this.

    I suspect your phone might be ringing soon with a plea to come back.

  6. I've just posted an almost-incoherent-with-rage piece about this grotesque blunder here:

    I've just taken the phone off the hook!!!

    No, the BBC doesn't employ fact-checkers - it's the job of the producer and the reporter to damn well get it right. That's what they're @%*&ing well paid to do!!!