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The BBC regains its honour

23 October 2012

9:02 AM

23 October 2012

9:02 AM

I hope that the entire editorial staffs of the Times, Sunday Times, Sun, Mail, Mail on Sunday, Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph (oh and the Express newspapers if they are still around) along with Alastair Campbell, the Parliamentary Conservative Party and Rupert Murdoch are going to be gracious enough to praise the BBC today.

How many other institutions would allow junior staff to carry out a forensic examination of an internal scandal and broadcast it to the world? How many others would allow employees to expose a manager who made a self-serving decision? If you think you could do what Panorama did last night in any other media organisation, ask yourself, where were the journalists in the press warning their employers of the dangers of phone hacking? There were no articles in the tabloids and Murdoch papers exposing mass law breaking by their papers. Even after the scandal broke, investigative journalists on the papers that hacked have not attempted to nail their proprietors and managers for the very good reason that their proprietors would fire them if they did.

As I keep pointing out, whenever we go to work we leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship. We can say what we want about politicians, and never fear that the secret police will arrest us, but if we criticise our managers in private or public sector hierarchies, everyone accepts that our careers will suffer or perhaps be over.

The absence of freedom of speech in the workplace has disastrous consequences. It cannot be said often enough that the interest of organisations – which require robust internal self-examination if they are to survive – and the interests of rent-seeking managers – who want to enforce deference and secrecy to justify their positions – are in conflict. The results of allowing incompetent and acquisitive managers to silence dissent ought to have been evident after the bank crash. Senior staff the Royal Bank of Scotland knew that Goodwin was leading the company to ruin, but they were too frightened to speak out. At HBOS, Paul Moore, the risk manager of the Halifax, was under a legal duty to ensure it behaved prudently. He found that managers rewarded sales teams if they sold mortgages, and mocked and demeaned them if they failed to persuade gullible punters to take the bait. When Moore told James Crosby that his bank’s lending was insanely risky, Crosby fired him, and Moore never worked in banking again. A few years later HBOS collapsed and you, dear reader, had to bail it out.

Compare Moore with his contemporaries. Suppose, they realised that their managers were making catastrophic errors. They lost nothing by staying silent. They kept their jobs and they pocketed their salaries and bonuses. When the bank collapsed, the state did not confiscate their homes and empty their accounts. Because they never caused trouble, they could find another job in another bank. If the state coerced the taxpayer into bailing out the failed institution, they could carry on in their old jobs as if nothing had happened – but now drawing salaries and bonuses at public expense. Within three years of the taxpayer bailing out RBS, 200 of its staff were receiving million-pound bonuses. Speaking out in the public interest brought nothing but trouble. Pursuing your private interest caused you no trouble at all.

We still don’t know what was going on in the mind of the editor of Newsnight when he spiked one of the biggest stories of the year. But it is plausible to imagine that the thought “my superiors may not thank me for broadcasting this” ran through it. If this is the case, his personal interest in advancing his career and the public interest in exposing the abuse of children would be conflict. Now, of course, everyone can see that it would also have been in the BBC’s interest if it had broken the story rather than laying itself open to accusations that it suppressed uncomfortable facts. As I said the interests of organisations and the interests of managers are not always in harmony.

At least at the BBC, journalists on Newsnight can speak out against cowardly editors, and journalists on Panorama can examine a corporate scandal without fear of reprisals. In doing so they help regain viewers’ trust and strengthen the institution.

We ought to be extending anti-managerialism into every private and public hierarchy. To my mind, the crash made the case for German-style worker directors on boards, who might temper the dictators of the boardroom, unanswerable. Beyond institutional change, we need cultural change. Any executive, who cannot take criticism from his or her staff, ought to be a risible figure. Indeed his desire to enforce silence ought to be recognised as a sign that he is unfit to be a manager in the first place. If we understood that, we would know that we need organisations that are more like cooperatives and less like Soviet era bureaucracies.

For the moment, though, I would like everyone who comments here at the Spectator to admit how very wrong they have been about the BBC. I have left plenty of space for you below, so get typing.

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