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.

Everybody’s talking about… tabloid phone hacking

So, it turns out that some people who work for the News of the World have questionable moral standards. This should not be surprising to anyone by this point in time. Allegations of phone hacking first surfaced in 2005. The paper’s royal editor was jailed for this crime in 2007. In February 2010 the Culture Commitee found that it was “inconceivable” that senior executives at the paper weren’t aware that phone hacking was going on.

Questions still remain about how widespread these practices were, or are, across other newspapers and media. The somewhat muted early response to the story from other print tabloids might suggest that there are skeletons in closets well beyond the News of the World. The Information Commissioner’s report into journalists paying for “private” information cited the Mirror and the Mail as the leading offenders in that area. Confirmation from the Press Association in June 2011 that one of its journalists had been arrested in relation to phone hacking also gives a possible indication of a wider problem in the industry.

But the specific actions of specific papers, morally bankrupt though the increasingly appear to be, actually concern me less than the wider culpability of those who ought to be in a position do something about the mess.

Let’s start with the Press Complaints Commission. In 2009 the PCC looked at new allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, arising from a Guardian article about the problem. They found that there was no evidence of hacking. It was only today, nearly two years later, that the Commission finally acknowledged that they could no longer stand by that conclusion. Today’s statement also noted that the recent admission that Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked “undermined the assurances” given to the Commission by News International. Well, yes. But it also raises questions about the PCC’s investigation. Did it simply take the form of asking News International whether they did phone hacking, and nodding politely when the answer was slightly shifty “No sir. Course not sir. Didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything”?

That’s ok though. The PCC is a self-regulatory body for the print media, and there are always limitations to self-regulation in any industry. In this one the limitations of self-regulation have to be balanced against the value of a free press. And in the case of phone-hacking a criminal act has occured, so the primary investigatory responsibility, and power, lie not the with PCC, but with the police.  And here’s where it gets really shady. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and now Chief Executive of News International, admitted in evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Press & Privacy in 2003, that the News of the World had, on occasion, paid police officers for information. She later qualified this statement in a letter to the Inquiry.

The Met’s initial 2005 investigation into phone hacking led to the convictions of a private investigator and one News of the World journalist. No further action was deemed necessary by the police or the CPS. No evidence of hacking beyond the specific offences in the trial was presented by the CPS to any court. The matter was simply not treated as a priority. At best, that smacks of an attitude that perceives criminal acts by well-paid powerful organisations and individuals as of limited importance. Alternatively, it suggests a police force which is unwilling or incapable of thoroughly investigating powerful, and potentially unco-operative, companies. Even now new revelations about the depth of the wrongdoing at News International seem to come out in terms of “News International have revealed that…”, rather than “the police have discovered that…” It rather makes you wonder who is really in charge of the current investigation.

The police are still not the final line of defence. Ultimately, political pressure could have lit a fire under the police investigation or sanctioned a specific inquiry into phone hacking in the media. Until yesterday that didn’t look likely. Why not? It’s very easy to lay the blame squarely at David Cameron’s door. He employed one former News of the World editor, and still seems unable to accept that that may have been unwise. He is also close friends with Rebekah Brooks. The image of cronyism at the highest level in British politics remains strong, and Cameron should be held accountable for his judgements in who he hires and who he chooses to call a friend.

The problem goes deeper than that though. At present the Murdoch owned News International already control approximately 1/3 of the UK newspaper market. Murdoch also owns 39% of BSkyB and is in the process of attempting to purchase the remaining 61% to make the company wholly owned by News Corp. The political influence of the Murdoch papers is hard to quantify. Successive editors have claimed that they don’t decide election results, they simply follow the public mood very closely. My suspicion is that those editors don’t really believe that version, and, more importantly, politicians don’t believe it either. Since the 1980s Rupert Murdoch and his organisation have become untouchable by leading politicians. Courting those papers has come to be seen as a prerequisite for political success. Unfortunately, it now appears that those papers have been harbouring a contagion at their heart, and politicians are discovering that if you’re prepared to sleep with the enemy, you’re likely to get contaminated by their germs.

How the current controversy over phone hacking, and now paying police for information, pans out may well tell us something about the current state of News Corp’s influence in the UK. If they come out of the other side retaining their market share, luring back those advertisers who are currently distancing themselves from News of the World, and, most importantly, owning BSkyB outright, we will know, that for now at least, traditional bonds of power, influence and cronyism are still strong forces. If they don’t, if the takeover of BSkyB is ultimately blocked, if the News of the World suffers a long-term dip in readership and advertising revenue, then we will know that the sands have shifted, slightly but significantly, around us.

Perhaps, at that point, we might conclude that new media, online news, and social networks really are starting to undermine the accepted order. Misleading stories and misdirections in the mainstream press are becoming easier to challenge, when any Tom, Dick or Alison can write their own version and send it out into the world. With 140 characters as our weapon of choice, we might just all be headline writers now.