Wednesday, 5 March 2014

BBC bosses and Parly select committees: The merry-go-round that never stops, by John Mair

George Entwistle faces select committee

John Mair, in a new book Is The BBC In Crisis?,  traces the recent history of the BBC and its appearances in front of parliamentary committees. He argues the side show has become the main show – a modern day spectacle.

The BBC has become the spectacle not the spectator at its own feast thanks to television and the rise of select committees in parliament. Far from simply reporting the story, the Corporation has too often become the story with month after month of BBC VVIPs appearing blinking in front of MPs and cameras.

This month, the Culture Select Committee, next the Public Accounts Committee, next the Foreign Affairs Committee. The merry-go-round simply never stops. It is a public spectacle or gladiatorial contest with no seeming end in sight. Watching the Beeb squirm is a spectacle sport of our times.

In 2013, BBC executives appeared before select committees a total of sixteen times (Patten 2013). Back in the Dark Ages – a decade ago in 2004 – there was just one annual trip from Portland Place to Westminster. The chairman of the BBC governors and the director-general would simply appear and amplify on the Corporation’s annual report for the select committee on culture, media and sport.

The then-Chairman, Gerald Kaufman MP, a former journalist and no slouch at self publicity, press released their conclusions in advance: After thorough discussion, the Committee has agreed a unanimous report. We do not believe that the status quo is an option for the BBC. Our recommendations are aimed at assisting the development of proposals that will take a strong and independent BBC, but also an accountable, open and efficient BBC, into what is an uncertain future for broadcasting.  The current review of the BBC’s royal charter is possibly the most significant in the Corporation’s history (Culture, Media and Sport Committee 2004).

This all has a familiar ring to it in 2014. Back then, parliament itself would debate royal commission reports such as Annan in 1977 and Peacock in 1986 into the BBC, broadcasting and the licence fee plus their many early-day motions to let MPs praise or damn the Corporation for perceived triumphs or misdemeanours but, by and large, the two Estates remained separate.

No more. The road from W1 to SWI has become a well-travelled one and not always in peace. Director-General Mark Thompson did not cover himself in glory when threatening to shoot the Salford BBC baby at birth if no increase in the licence fee in front of a select committee in 2005. That was just the beginning of the nightmare. Think of poorly prepared then-D-G George Entwistle struggling to account for the Savile affair to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (in the Thatcher Room of Portcullis House!) on 23 October 2012. It was a lamb and slaughter as the Guardian reported.

Asked how many cases of sexual harassment the corporation knew about, he stumbled before answering there were ‘between five and 10 serious allegations’ relating to the Savile period. Later he changed that to ‘between eight and 10’. This was not the sure-footed response needed to impress a committee that wrung a ‘most humble day of life’ apology out of Rupert Murdoch a year ago. It made it easy for Tory MP Philip Davies, no BBC loyalist, to land a blow. He accused Entwistle of a ‘lamentable lack of knowledge’ about the allegations of child abuse by now well-aired across every media outlet including the BBC. 

Davies quizzed him about what he knew about an alleged ‘paedophile ring at the BBC’ and wanted to know who was responsible for bussing vulnerable schoolgirls to Savile shows. ‘I don’t know,’ Entwistle said, explaining the Corporation was trying to piece together documentation in relation to this. Asked who allowed underage children to go backstage with Savile, Entwistle responded: ‘We are trying to answer the questions in the same way’ (O’Carroll 2012).

Entwistle’s time as D-G lasted just another three weeks after that. Think of BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten of Barnes losing his temper with Philip Davies MP calling his question about his daily routine ‘impertinent’ and asking: ‘Do you want to know my toilet habits?’ on 26 November 2012 and
think of the worst spectacle of them all – the Six Not So Wise Men (and one woman) lined up, uncomfortably cheek by jowl and passing several bucks about executive pay-offs in front of the Public Accounts Committee on 9 September 2013. Live on the BBC’s Parliamentary Channel, the BBC News Channel and many other non-BBC outlets. 

That single session did the Corporation much harm. One exchange between Margaret Hodge MP, the Chair, and Lucy Adams, the BBC Director of HR, illustrates the sheer bad temper and combative nature of the event:

Chair: Just to be clear on that, because I am not having any more lies this afternoon, may I ask the NAO whether that document – the 7 October document, of which we were all given a copy – was also passed to the witnesses? Did they know what we were talking about?....

Lucy Adams: Yes, it was submitted by the Trust; it wasn’t a document that I had seen. I apologise to the committee that I wasn’t able to identify that document at the time. There was no attempt deliberately to mislead the committee. I immediately clarified upon parliament’s return that I recognised the document as one to which I had contributed. In the committee meeting, I was clear that I couldn’t with absolute certainty recall that document, but I was also clear that I was involved in advising Mark on the terms for Mark Byford. I have never sought to deny my involvement in that (Public Accounts Committee 2013).

The spectacle will be televised

Ironically, the BBC has created the transmission mechanism for its own appearance at the spectacle. Not just the massive News empire that is a relic of John Birt as Director-General with its big set piece built radio and television news programmes but the BBC News Channel, created in 1998 as BBC News 24, providing wall-to-wall news, twenty four hours a day seven days a week. That outlet is simply a sausage machine with a voracious appetite for content and stories. BBC bosses making a not very good fist of it in parliament live (and in later packages) is manna from heaven for them.

But worse there is the BBC Parliamentary Channel and Democracy Live both set up by the Corporation to try to bridge the democratic deficit between citizens and legislators. BBC Parliament – a channel run by the Corporation since 1998 – does what it says on the label. It features wall-to-wall UK Parliament, the Houses of Commons and Lords, the three devolved assemblies, the European Parliament, the London Assembly and all select committee sessions live and recorded. So too Democracy Live, the BBC News Online website launched at a cost of £3 million in 2009, streaming all parliamentary output live to the internet continually. 

There is now no hiding place in cyberspace for any politician or witness who appears in front of a parliamentary committee anywhere in the UK or Europe. It is a political anorak’s dream.

So, parliaments of various sorts in the last decade have become the focus of the spectacle called accountability and transparency and the BBC has played its part in transmitting that spectacle and sometimes being the stars, albeit unwitting, of it all.

How did we get to where we are?

Select committees of parliament are newish boys on the Westminster block. They have existed only since 1980. Their purpose mainly is to shadow all government departments, interrogate their decisions and spending and report appropriately. They are, or should be, the legislature’s check on the executive.

Initially, they were anodyne and toothless but they soon found their range, especially when the Blair government took office in 1997 with its huge parliamentary majority. There was no real role in the chamber for backbench MPs so they might as well join a select committee and make a name for themselves/cause trouble on that. Committee rooms were a rare backbench platform. They could be a route to the ministerial red box (and car) for wannabe ministers but more often they were the refuge of the never-will-be-ministers, or hose who once were but never will be again..

Select committees realised their power lay as much in ‘naming and shaming’ institutions and people as in carefully drafted and considered reports which would only gather dust on secretaries of state’s shelves. The power of the press release and the spectacle of a live televised hearing were much more attractive than hours spent in line-by-line drafting of reports. Rather than long-term strategic questions they moved towards the simple headline-grabbing tactical ones.

In 2014, we have reached the position where some select committees are like the BBC’s own Newsnight in redux but slower. An event or news story happens – in broadcasting, to the police, to the banks – and often within a week the representatives of that institution find themselves in front of the parliamentary watchdogs answering difficult questions. It has rapidly become part of the warp
and weave of British public life. Newsnight does the story that night, select committees do it the week after

Along with the rise of the select committee as spectacle there has also been the rise of the select committee chairs (and some members) as stars. Give them a spotlight and they will find themselves under it. Keith Vaz MP is no shrinking violet. His Home Affairs Select Committee has become a publicity platform for this former minister in and out of parliament. Police misbehaving? They will be called to face his committee. Bulgarian migrants ‘swamping’ the UK? Vaz will be there at Luton airport to greet them-even if they are in single figures. No stone is left unturned by the Vaz PR machine.

Margaret Hodge MP is another ex-minister turned tormentor (of ministers and others). Her Public Accounts Committee has a wide remit on all government and public spending. She has used that to the full and most clinically in the last three years on the £3.65 billion of TV licence payers’ money
funnelled to the BBC. John Whittingdale MP was a Conservative Party spokesman on broadcasting in Opposition. Ministerial office was not to be his. Instead, he has turned his Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee into a running show on media matters; the de facto Parliamentary Media Show.

Newsnight in redux? The CMS select committee

The CMS select committee has become a televised Star Chamber. Most notably when it summoned Rupert Murdoch, the media uber mogul, to explain and justify phone hacking to them on 19 July 2011 after the closure of his News of the World. Murdoch’s opening gambit then was a master stroke in dissembling. ‘I would just like to say one sentence. This is the most humble day of my life.’ This
did not prevent him from being closely examined by the rottweiler of that committee, Tom Watson MP.

Mr Watson: Mr Murdoch senior, good afternoon, sir. You have repeatedly stated that News Corp has zero tolerance to wrongdoing by employees. Is that right?

Rupert Murdoch: Yes.

Mr Watson: In October 2010, did you still believe it to be true when you made your Thatcher speech and you said: ‘Let me be clear: we will vigorously pursue the truth—and we will not tolerate wrongdoing’?

Rupert Murdoch: Yes.

Mr Watson: So if you were not lying then, somebody lied to you. Who was it?

Rupert Murdoch: I don’t know. That is what the police are investigating, and we are helping them with.

Mr Watson: But you acknowledge that you were misled.

Rupert Murdoch: Clearly (Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee 2011).

On the other side of the committee and the House, Louise Mensch MP was much gentler than Bruiser Watson:

Louise Mensch: Mr Rupert Murdoch, you are the Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corp. You are the head of the global company. The buck stops with you. Given these allegations, indeed, when you opened the session, you said that this was the most humiliating day of your life.

Chair: Humble.

Louise Mensch: Oh, I’m sorry – humble. I beg your pardon. That was a mistake. You said that it was the most humble day of your life. You feel humbled by these events. You are ultimately in charge of the company. Given your shock at these things being laid out before you and the fact that you didn’t know anything about them, have you instructed your editors around the world to engage in a root-and-branch review of their own newsrooms to be sure that this isn’t being replicated in other News
Corps papers around the globe? If not, will you do so?

Rupert Murdoch: No, but I am more than prepared to do (Culture, Mediaand Sport Select Committee 2011).

Through the CMS Select Committee, Watson became the scourge of News International and, as a result, rose to Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He later fell. Mensch decided parliament was too boring and small for her and retreated to the USA.

The CMS Select Committee has regularly turned its attention to the BBC in the last three years, as a search of Hansard reveals:

1. The BBC licence fee settlement, 15 December 2010: Mark Thompson, Director-General, and Sir Michael Lyons, then-Chairman of the BBC Trust, gave evidence.

2. The BBC Digital Media Initiative, 15 February 2011: Mark Thompson, Director-General, Erik Huggers, Director of Future Media and Technology, BBC, and Anthony Fry, Trustee, BBC Trust gave evidence.

3. The BBC Licence Fee Settlement and Annual Report and Accounts 2009- 10, 19 May 2011: Committee report into this – as this had done for the previous decade.

4. One-off evidence session with outgoing BBC Director-General, 19 June 2012: Mark Thompson gave evidence of his achievements over the previous eight years and any setbacks, staff remuneration and the future of the BBC.

5. The BBC’s response to the Jimmy Savile case, 23 October 2012: Director-General George Entwistle gave evidence about the two independent reviews; the safeguards and vetting procedures that would have been in place when Jimmy Savile was appointed by the BBC.

6. Priorities for the new Director-General of the BBC, 25 April 2013: On 2 April, Lord Hall started as the BBC’s new Director-General. The committee held an early evidence session three weeks later with him to consider his priorities for the next few months.

7. The select committee questions BBC Director-General Tony Hall and BBC Trust Chair Lord Patten on the BBC annual report, 22 October 2013.

So, at least seven separate inquiries and reports into the BBC in less than three years. Whittingdale’s committee is not done They are now holding a wide ranging inquiry into The Future of the BBC, ahead of its current royal charter ending in December 2016.

Accountable to the public?

Since 2011, the Public Accounts Committee and its investigative arm, the National Audit Office, have started to take a close interest in the BBC and BBC finances in at least three areas:

1. Evidence from the BBC on its efficiency savings programme, 21 November 2011.

2. BBC severance packages: Oral evidence, July and September 2013.

Two public hearings on executive severance packages resulting in a damning report on 16 December 2013 which made five tough recommendations

• The BBC should ensure that severance payments do not exceed what is absolutely necessary.

• The BBC should remind its staff that they are all individually responsible for protecting public money and challenging wasteful practices.

• To protect licence fee payers’ interests and its own reputation, the BBC should establish internal procedures that provide clear central oversight and effective scrutiny of severance payments.

• The BBC executive and the BBC Trust need to overhaul the way they conduct their business, and record and communicate decisions properly.

• Given its overarching responsibility for the stewardship of public money, the BBC Trust should be more willing to challenge practices and decisions where there is a risk that the interests of licence fee payers could be compromised.

• The BBC Trust and the BBC executive need to ensure that decision making is transparent and accountability taken seriously, based on a shared understanding of value for money, with tangible evidence of individuals taking public responsibility for their decisions.

3. Report on the BBC move to Salford, 16 October 2013.

My Lord … another committee

As if that’s not enough, the House of Lords also has its own wide-ranging Communications Committee with a remit that includes the BBC. Their inquires have included:

1. BBC charter inquiry: BBC Chairman and the D-G gave evidence 18 July 2005.

2. BBC Trust: Mark Thompson gives evidence, 26 April 2011.

3. What will be on the box? Lords question BBC and Channel Four, 27 November 2012.

As part of their inquiry into media convergence, the Lords Communications Committee put questions to two public service broadcasters (PSBs), the BBC and Channel 4.

And even more…

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee looked at and reported on the Implications of the BBC World Service Cuts, in April 2011. And in the House of Commons chamber itself … on 21 October 2013, MPs took part in a general debate on the future of the BBC. Parliamentary scrutiny has clearly come upon the BBC with a vengeance in the last decade.

Spectacle of gladiators at the Coliseum?

So the spectacle of the BBC big-wigs up before the parliamentary beaks has become everyday. But is spectacle the best metaphor for the position in which the BBC finds itself? Could it be that a better parallel might be ancient Rome and the Coliseum in which gladiators fought off all-comers including wild animals like lions. The gladiators or swordsmen had to impress the audience with their ability to fight for their lives. Their job was not just survival but to achieve popular acclaim through the skills used in that. Through fight after fight the gladiators could buy their freedom. Is that what faces the Corporation over the next two years in the struggle for charter renewal and a decent licence fee

Just as in ancient Rome, what is happening in the Coliseum/parliament is there for the entertainment of an audience. In this case, licence fee payers informed and inflamed by a largely hostile anti-BBC national press. Leading the hate brigade, day after day, the soi disant voice of Middle England, the Daily Mail, a direct competitor to the Corporation in news and online provision (where MailOnline is trumping the BBC News Online into a cocked hat) and a vintage vehicle for BBC bashing. Two headlines on the PAC hearing and report on Executive pay offs in 2013 give a flavour: ‘Thompson was firing away like a Spanish man o’war entering Gibraltar harbour’ (Daily Mail, 10 September 2013).

And ‘Liars! MPs say BBC bosses lied to parliament about obscene pay-offs. There couldn’t be a more serious charge, but don’t expect any contrition’ (Daily Mail, 17 December 2013). Others in the ‘balanced ‘British press were equally shrill. For instance, ‘BBC chiefs deny “losing the plot” over £1million pay-off’ (Daily Express, 10 September 2013). And ‘Accusations fly as BBC bosses argue over payoffs’ (The Times, 10 September 2013). Newspapers feast on the spectacle of the ‘BBC in
the dock’ for commercial and journalistic reasons like sharks or lions circling the wounded beast. In an ideal world they would like to see no BBC in ‘their’ market places to lessen their descent into oblivion. Only the sheer quality and popularity of their programmes, their range and the trust it engenders ensures the BBC’ssurvival and that of the licence fee.

Egging on the crowds in this virtual Coliseum are rabble rousing politicians, usually Conservative. Home Secretary Theresa May – her intervention on local BBC Online News was noted earlier. Grant Shapps MP, the Conservative Party Chairman, called in October 2013 for the BBC licence fee to be ‘top-sliced’ next time round i.e. bid for and used by other public service broadcasters. His call did not fall on entirely fertile ground

The most persistent fly in the Corporation ointment is Rob Wilson, theMember of Parliament for Reading East. He has turned BBC bashing into his profession. No opportunity is missed to berate the national broadcaster. Unfortunately for them, he is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chancellor
George Osborne who will probably be as crucial in setting the next licence fee as he was the last. D-G Mark Thompson and then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had to go to Osborne’s office after their lightning ‘negotiations’ in 2010 to get his approval before going public,

What next for the spectacle?

Old BBC hands when confronted with the current panoply of woes shrug their shoulders and say: ‘It will blow over, it always does.’ Alas, this time the issues and problems may be more deep-seated.
In June 2014, the Dame Janet Smith report into the activities of Jimmy Savile (and others) within
the BBC and the culture of the Corporation is due. That is literally a time bomb waiting to explode.

How many more times will the new BBC brahmins be called back to the Portcullis House gladiatorial arena? When and how will the spectacle end? Probably not until 31 December 2016 and then most likely in tears ...

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