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12 November 2012

BBC insiders are fearful and compromised: it’s time to look outside

I learned the hard way, working in two public-sector bureaucracies, that the best way to get ahead was to take no risks – one of the main reasons I got out. Later, reading the great Walter Bagehot, whose brilliance as a commentator owed much to his acute observation of human nature, I recognised the timelessness of that judgement.

In 1856, writing of how government worked, Bagehot wrote: “In every public office there is a grave official personage, who is always neat, whose papers are always filed, whose handwriting is always regular, who is considered a monster of experience, who can minute any proceeding, and docket any document. There is no finer or more saving investment of exertion than the formation of such habits. Under their safeguard, you may omit anything, and commit every blunder. The English people never expect anyone to be original. If it can be said, ‘The gentleman whose conduct is so harshly impugned is a man of long experience, who is not wont to act hastily – who is remarkable for official precision – in whom many Secretaries of State have placed much reliance,’ that will do.”

Such people don’t go beyond their job description, and they particularly don’t choose to rush to a superior with a message he mightn’t like. I have sympathy for the hapless George Entwistle – by all accounts decent and able – but he must have known more than most the kind of people who now dominate the BBC bureaucracy. He needed to tell them that he wanted to hear bad news, uncomfortable truths and difficult questions. Instead, he was brought down by a culture so sclerotic that there was no one who would even show him the front page of The Guardian, a newspaper that litters BBC HQ.

The BBC has been over-bureaucratised for decades, but Jeremy Paxman was right that this had been exacerbated when the corporation decided “in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, to play safe by appointing biddable people. They then compounded the problem by enforcing a series of cuts on programme budgets, while bloating the management.”

Even the best BBC lifers are too institutionalised even to grasp what’s going on in the bureaucratic forest that has long replaced concepts like individual responsibility and common sense with compliance guidelines. For radical reform you need a thick-skinned, tough outsider with extensive journalistic and business experience, who knows the BBC intimately and doesn’t fear failure. It’s time to take risks. Andrew Neil anybody?

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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