BBC Rules of Disengagement

It’s bizarre to watch the mother ship that is the BBC twist and turn and veer out of control.

One crisis after the other has seen the venerable broadcaster add layer upon layer of bureaucracy, procedures and hierarchies to try and stem ongoing issues of truth and responsibility. Sadly more rules simply led to more failure.

Management added more and more guidelines and put more emphasis on form-filling and safety checks in news and entertainment programs.

An organization already known for its bureaucracy became even more unwieldy. Rather than people, the BBC put its faith in processes. Never a good idea.

It’s these very structures that failed the BBC in the most recent scandals. Its news division first canceled a child abuse segment it should have broadcast, and later broadcast one it should have canceled.

A New York Times article by Sarah Lyall and Nicholas Kulish details the institutional failure.

In the first instance, people overseeing the program were too cautious, so that senior managers were left unaware of its existence. In the second, managers relied too much on rigid procedures at the expense of basic journalistic principles.

Both exposed the problems in a system that seems to insulate the BBC’s director general - who is also the editor in chief - from basic issues like what potentially contentious programs are scheduled for broadcast.

And both decisions were the result of a system that failed in practice, even as it was correctly followed in theory.

BBC journalists say the people along the chain were more concerned with checking the right boxes than with asking the right questions.

One compared what happened to a plane spiraling out of control in which the pilot, rather than pulling on the controls, reaches for an instruction manual and begins to carefully check off steps.

It’s time to toss the manual out the window.

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