Why the next DG may ‘need a Mark’.

Stacked away in a distant corner of the BBC website, in the digital equivalent of a brown manila folder of old press releases, lies an intriguing paragraph from October 2010.

It combines Western corporate management-speak with just a hint of the self-criticism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The title of the press release begins ‘Post of Deputy Director-General to close’ and the key paragraph is:

“We have concluded – and Mark fully accepts – that the work he has done to develop our journalism and editorial standards across the BBC has achieved the goals we set to such an extent that the role of Deputy Director-General can now end, that the post should close at the end of the current financial year, and that Mark himself should be made redundant.”

The Mark in question was Mark Byford is now gone, and the Mark who wrote those words , Mark Thompson has moved on too.

But Thompson, still trying to clear himself of any lingering connections with the Savile affair and get started in his new role at the New York Times , may be reflecting on the implications for himself and the corporation of ending the development of  ‘editorial standards across the BBC’.

The man who inherited Thompson’s structure , the now-departed George Entwistle, may be reflecting on the irony of it too. And I suspect he’ll also be wondering  if letting go of a key member of  the inherited Thompson structure, rival candidate for DG Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thompson, was that smart either.

Mark Byford had once seemed to be on the road to the very top of the BBC. He was a BBC lifer , as he once put it- ‘from a summer holiday job to head of all the BBC’s journalism’. This commitment once led him to declare with a totally straight face that he would ‘die for the BBC’. But his career never quite recovered from the aftermath of the Hutton report in 2004 when the BBC Governors fired Greg Dyke and turned in relief to Mark as their interim DG. He and the acting BBC Chairman, Lord Ryder, suddenly appeared on a video feed, looking like the proverbial rabbits in the headlight, apologizing abjectly to the Government of the day.

When a new Chairman, Michael Grade, appointed not this Mark but another one, Mark Thompson, returning from a short career-broadening stint outside the BBC at Channel Four, Byford went back to the number two job. People began to grumble about his salary- £475,000 a year by the end- to point out that he would struggle to earn anything like that outside the BBC, and to speculate about the size of this lifer’s pension pot-£3.7m by the end.

But most of all they wondered ‘what does Mark actually do?’.

The answer is that he watched the DG’s back and he watched the BBC’s back.

But in the classic BBC tradition that wonderfully faux politeness between colleagues gave way to a stiletto between his own shoulder-blades.

As George Entwistle himself lay, mortally wounded after his encounter with what one tweeter called ‘Death by Humphries’, he may have wished he’d had a Byford by his side looking out for him.

Margaret Thatcher once declared that ‘Every Prime Minister needs a Willie (Whitelaw). Now the chorus is growing that every DG needs a Mark.

A ‘Mark solution’ may be rather simpler and cheaper than the “radical, structural overhaul” which the Chairman of the BBC Trust promises.

Much is made of the issue of titles. The Director-General of the BBC is traditionally also called the BBC’s ‘Editor-in-Chief’. When Michael Checkland, an accountant by background, was appointed DG in 1987 he immediately appointed John Birt, a producer by background, as his deputy. John Birt never had the title ‘Editor-in-Chief’ but everybody knew he was.

If Lord Patten wants to choose a Director-General without a programming background he should reach for the Mark model. Byford was the de facto ‘Director of Journalism’ in charge of all the BBC’s journalism at UK, international and local levels covering not just news and current affairs but also all the other journalistic output from TV and radio documentaries to online blogs and Radio Times features.  And he had the status to alert the Director-General to possible future crises. The ‘stepped-aside’ Director of News, Helen Boaden, does not have that range of responsibilities and the Pollard review into Newsnight and Savile will, presumably, tell us of her performance in alert mechanisms.

I can think of a number of good internal candidates for a new ‘Director of Journalism’ and first-hand experience of the tribal traditions within the distrustful factions in BBC journalism is useful. I’m not sure the BBC needs to go outside.

Much has also been made of Entwistle’s apparent obsession with ‘systems’. On a BBC progamme this past weekend I told the story of my encounter, while running ITN, with one of my press team, Huw Roberts,who went on to a distinguished career in public affairs in Wales, told me something which a newspaper had called him about. It was not good news and I let Huw know that I did not welcome it.

Very calmly and very firmly he told me ‘Boss, you pay me to give you bad news as well as good’. He was absolutely right, I never forgot his ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ message and I hope I never made the same mistake again.

Maybe if the messengers who should have been bearing bad news to George Entwistle had more courage and maybe more encouragement the Director-General wouldn’t have been the only person in the media village who didn’t have half a day’s notice that Newsnight was about to do something that ultimately would cost him his job.

Having a Director of Journalism or a Chief Operating Officer or even a new Director of Corporate Affairs may sound like yet more technocratic ‘systems’ solutions and maybe they wouldn’t have stopped ‘slipshod’ journalism in the first place. But for a new DG knowing that somebody is watching your back and will break down your door saying ‘stop re-writing that boring conference speech for the third time and focus on this’ might just be the best insurance policy in town.

9 thoughts on “Why the next DG may ‘need a Mark’.

  1. A normal day on BBC One would mean reading 30 pages of news cuttings before 9am, fielding 500+ emails, monitoring live TV news & social media *while* doing ‘the day job’ of previewing programmes and sorting any editorial issues that arose, speechwriting etc….but we had the channel covered and the Controller briefed on any urgent matter. As a matter of interest, the infamous “Queengate” happened *after* the posts were cut.

  2. The back-watcher is the sort of role you have in any large organisation, journalistic or otherwise, and the absence of such a being has been one of the more baffling parts of the saga.

    However, I’m puzzled by the assertion that Boaden doesn’t have the breadth of responsibilities that Byford had (I accept not the seniority) – with World Service, Nations & Regions and Sport as well as ‘news’ what else is there that he did that she doesn’t have responsibility for?

    • The entire output of Docs and Features (Watchdog, for example, which I edited in the late 90s)….those areas were never under News Directorate.

    • There are all sorts of journalistic activities inside the BBC within factual departments in television and radio which don’t fall within the News Division or Nations and Regions.The most obvious examples are documentaries. For instance the BBC documentary on dog breeding was an extremely controversial investigation.

      • and indeed a group of six major companies got together in 98/99 to demand Watchdog back off from investigating them. They got a meeting with the DG. There was talk in the press (stirred up by the same companies) that the programme would be taken off air. It didn’t happen. The DG supported us. The series is still on air today.

  3. We had them at BBC TV channel level (I know, I was one of them for 4 years). I did just what you said for a Controller and it worked. The BBC cut the posts in 2007.

  4. I agree with much of what you write Professor, but I have so many nagging questions. The BBC can be sclerotic and does have a whiff of the best (or worst) of Communist China; but if I were to say to a colleague (or even a friend), that one of my programmes was looking at/investigating a former BBC celebrity, wouldn’t my colleague/friend want to know more? Such paucity of curiosity is astonishing; to be so hands off as to absolve oneself of any responsibility is worrying indeed. Further, wouldn’t my colleague have offered the information regardless of my obvious lack of interest? You are right, managers do not welcome bad news, and prefer solutions rather than complaints. But from my own experience even well-meaning solutions and suggestions are ignored in favour of the status quo. Money, even where it is tight, is allowed to flow freely to protect the many incompetent to manage their way to the top. The BBC does not need serried ranks of people to back watch, it needs a small number of good managers and journalists who can smell a problem before it infects the carpeted floors. That is why Huw Roberts went on to have such a distinguished career.

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