In which I am slightly confused by the BBC’s employment practices

So the BBC is having something of a kerfuffle. I think kerfuffle is the right term. Some media outlets would have it that the BBC is in irredeemable crisis, but those are media outlets with short memories (fallout from the Hutton Enquiry anyone?) and lazy typing brains, so their opinions are best stepped over like the slightly muddy puddle that they are. Anyone would think there was some sort of big report on print media ethics coming out soon, that they maybe wanted to distract attention from.

I should probably make plain right now that I’m a big ol’ fan of the BBC. I think public interest broadcasting is massively important. I’m with Mitch Benn on this one (even given the slightly unfortunate reference to Newsnight in line one).

I think that Doctor Who, Only Connect, most of Radio 4 (but not The Archers, never, ever, ever The Archers) and everything ever made involving Brian Cox, Alice Roberts or David Attenborough justify the licence fee in full, making things like decent news coverage an (albeit essential to making democracy work) add-on benefit.

It is unfortunate for the BBC that it finds itself unable to defend itself without being accused of bias, and that the rest of the media sees it as a competitor so is very happy to stoke the flames of any perceived problem or mismanagement. It also seems clear that there were major weaknesses in child protection during the Jimmy Savile years – although it’s not yet clear that those weaknesses were any worse than those exhibited at schools, by the police, within the CPS, and indeed in certain hospitals, during the same period. There have also been, more recent, problems of editorial control on Newsnight, but to generalise from that to a wider damning of the beeb feels a bit baby/bathwater-ish. You know the saying: “Be careful when you throw out babies, that you don’t get rid of the bathwater. Water’s a precious resource, you know. You could use that bathwater on the garden.” Or something along those lines. So, anyway, if you’re looking for some BBC bashing, please move along or scurry down to the bottom and entertain yourselves in the comments.

One thing has particularly caught my attention during the recent kerfuffle though, and that is the BBC’s slightly odd employment practices. I’m not talking about the major odd practices that led to this whole thingummy doo-dah. I’m talking about something else – in fact two something elses.

Firstly, George Entwistle has resigned as Director General of the BBC but is still going to receive a year’s salary. Secondly, Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, BBC Head of News, Helen Boaden, and Deputy Head of News, Steve Mitchell, have all “stepped aside” during this crisis. What irritates me here, and I do see that it’s really not the biggest issue but it irritates me nonetheless, is the wanton use of euphemism.

In employment law there are basically 4 options:

1. You still work there, which involves regularly turning up, and at least presenting the facade of doing work.

2. You’re suspended on full pay. This is what employers do when they’re investigating a possible disciplinary issue and deciding whether to take further action. They don’t need to start a disciplinary procedure to suspend an employee on full pay, because they’re still meeting their employer’s obligation to hand over money.

3. You resign. That means that you don’t work there anymore because you don’t want to, and, fairly obviously, you don’t get paid anymore.

4. You get sacked. That means that you don’t work there anymore because your employer doesn’t want you to, and you don’t get paid anymore (after whatever notice period you’re entitled to).

So for George Entwistle, if he genuinely resigned, why on earth is he still getting a year’s salary? That hardly sounds like a resignation. That sounds like an offer that any one of us would be insane to refuse. “So you’re saying I don’t have to come in anymore? I don’t have to do any work? But you’re still going to pay me in full for the next 12 months? Er…. sure, OK.”

If he wasn’t pressured into resigning, why give him the cash? It’s not normal to pay someone not to work for you. If he was pressured into resigning, why do it in such an expensive way? Why not just sack the man? If the BBC Trust felt he wasn’t up to the role and had lost the trust of the public and the corporation staff, then that would be a perfectly legal thing to do.

And what’s all this “stepping aside” malarkey? Call a spade a shovel for goodness sake. I’m guessing – and it is just a guess – that those people referred to as having “stepped aside” are suspended pending further investigation, which would be the employer’s decision. Generally, in employment, there isn’t an option where you go to your boss and say, “I’m finding work a tad tricky at the moment. I think I’ll just step aside for a while…” You either quit or you keep working there, unless your employer decides different.

I hope the BBC gets through this kerfuffle, and I’m confident that it will, and I hope that they appoint a new Director General who’s prepared to stand up for the organisation, both externally and internally. That might, on occasion, involve doing decisive things like firing an incompetent, not inviting them to step aside, or paying them excessively to go away without fuss.

Last, but by no means least, let me just squeeze in a tiny little point about David Cameron. David Cameron thinks that the year’s salary paid to George Entwistle is “hard to justify.” I happen to agree with him. However, the man who told Rebekah Brooks to “keep her head up” during the phone-hacking scandal might want to check the solidity of his moral high ground before wading into dhe debate about any other media exec’s pay arrangements. Brooks is now facing criminal charges over phone hacking and, apparently, left News International with a something in the region of £7 million.

Things that make me go Grrrrr… No. 1 David Starkey

As promised yesterday (https://alisonmay.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/what-i-read-on-my-holidays/) here is my blog post in which I attempt to make a coherent intelligent link between David Starkey acting like a stupid person and Carol Vorderman reporting on the teaching of maths in school. Here we go.

David Starkey, like pretty much anyone else in the UK who is prepared to generate an opinion on short notice, has been pontificating about the causes of the recent riots and looting across English cities. For reasons, which we will come to, I don’t really want to generate him more noteriety by encouraging you to watch his appearance on Newsnight, but for other reasons, which are also coming, I don’t feel I can rant about his comments without letting you view my primary source material for yourselves, so here’s the iplayer link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013h14z/Newsnight_12_08_2011/ The bit I’m talking about starts about 13 minutes in.

In his comments on the riots, Starkey opens by referencing Enoch Powell’s famous Rivers of Blood speech, and then comments that “the whites have become black”, before continuing to note that some black people (Starkey cites MP David Lammy) sound white.  After announcing that “the whites have become black”, Starkey goes onto claim that “a particular sort of violent nihilistic gangser culture has become the fashion.” This equating of “black” with “violent” and “nihilistic”, and whiteness with well-spoken respectability, has, not surprisingly, caused some controversy to ensue.

Starkey has form in this area. He has previously described himself as an “all-purpose media tart”, and courted press attention by, amongst other things, describing Scotland, Ireland and Wales as “feeble little” countries on BBC Question Time, and complaining vociferously (and to coincide with his own book being published) about the “feminising” of history. Controversy makes column inches and increases viewing figures, and David Starkey is frequently happy to oblige.

And that’s a problem, particularly with David Starkey, because he doesn’t appear on Newsnight or Question Time captioned as an “all-purpose media tart”, but rather as an “Historian.” That means that Starkey is playing the role of the academic to put across viewpoints which are deeply unacademic. Good academic historians are led by evidence. To draw conclusions evidence should be reliable, read in context and verifyable against other data or documents from the period in question. When pushed by other contributors to cite the evidence for his views in the Newsnight debate, Starkey falls back on a single text message. Really? One text? That’s all you’ve got?

One text message isn’t enough for a conclusion. Without a transcript of other texts sent by the same person in the same time period it’s not really enough to draw academic conclusions about that one person’s attitudes, style of language etc. It doesn’t get you close to the causes of a disparate event, involving hundreds of people across multiple cities. The galling thing is that Starkey knows that. He has a Phd in History. He has had a proper academic training in the handling of evidence. He is not, looking at his qualifications, a stupid man, but he appears to be a man prepared to say stupid things for attention.

A proper academic response to the riots, at this point in time, would probably start, “Well, it’s complicated..” and finish with something about “proper analysis of data from police, courts etc.” And that wouldn’t make particularly interesting television. It also wouldn’t make particularly pithy or headline grabbing public policy. It might, in the longer term, get us to a point where we understood a little bit about what actually happened last week, and what steps might be taken to minimise the risk, and effects, of a recurrence.

And that’s how I get to Carol Vordeman. (Stay with me here people – it will make sense.) The Conservative Party’s Carol Vordeman-led Maths Task Force, reported it’s conclusions earlier this month. The conclusions included suggestions such as making the study of Maths compulsory until age 18, and scrapping the Maths SAT test.

Now, I don’t want to be rude about Ms Vordeman. I have no reason to doubt her personal commitment to the improvement of standards of numeracy across the country. However, I do doubt the motivations of the Tory leadership in appointing her to lead their Maths Task Force. It seems to suggest that there was no-one available in the UK who has more relevant knowledge for this role than the lady who used to do the sums on Countdown. There are, we must logically conclude, no mathmaticians with a specialism in maths-education, no current or former teachers with ideas for reform and improvement in their specialist subject. It sounds unlikely, but why else would Vordeman have been appointed, other than that she was objectively the most qualified person for the job? It can’t possibly be because she is a media friendly face, recognisable to middle-England, and guaranteed a friendly spot on the Daybreak sofa to explain her Task Force’s reforms.

Together these two, not obviously related, news events worry me. Controversy is preferred to consideration; celebrity preferred to expertise. There isn’t a place in the news media or in political debate for those of us whose natural instinct is to think for a while before drawing conclusions. Media moves too quickly. Policies are required to be pithy, headline grabbing and immediate. Thoughtfulness is discouraged, and without thoughtfulness, I think, it’s impossible to achieve understanding. Without understanding a situation how can you draw conclusions, make decisions and plan for the future? Personally, I just don’t think you can.

Finally, just so you can check my sources, in a properly transparent “academic” way, here are some sites that relate to what I’ve written above:

Profile of David Starkey: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4837679.ece

David Starkey on Question Time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXd5KiKWtVA

David Starkey on feminising history: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5077505/History-has-been-feminised-says-David-Starkey-as-he-launches-Henry-VIII-series.html

Carol Vordeman on maths in schools: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14437665

And also worth a read is Starkey’s fellow Newsnight guest, Dreda Say Mitchell’s take on the whole affair: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/david-starkey-ethnic-year-zero

And even more finally, I haven’t written a blog explicitly about the recent riots. Mainly that was because there seemed to be an awful lot of opinion already out there, and also because all I really had to say was, “Well, it’s complicated…” but here are a couple of the more considered views I’ve read on the matter:

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/

Kevin Sampson in the Guardian (the only writer I’ve seen acknowledge that rioting can be kinda fun for the participants): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/10/liverpool-riots-mob-mayhem?INTCMP=SRCH