Truth to power

The BBC has been cleared of complicity in serial rape and predatory sexual abuse at the corporation. Staff were afraid to report the behaviour of star presenters Jimmy Savile (deceased) and Stuart Hall (convicted) leaving clues trapped in pockets at the bottom of the hierarchy. But the case for plausible deniability only highlights the cordon sanitaire that appears to conveniently isolate the top brass from the shop floor and the BBC from reality.

Director General Tony Hall is already acting on the report of Dame Janet Smith’s Review into the culture and practices of the BBC during ‘the Savile and Hall years’ from the early 60’s to 2007.

Dame Janet says we should look carefully at three areas – a lack of cohesion in the BBC, the hierarchical nature of the management structure, and our attitudes toward ‘the talent’. These are all crucial issues – ones we are thinking about already and which we will push forward on in the coming months. We are, for a start, building a simpler BBC with fewer divisions, fewer boards and fewer layers between the top of the organisation and the front line, with senior leaders who are more visible, accountable and approachable. Where we work together as one team – for one BBC – with management that’s enabling and supports creativity. Management that demonstrates zero tolerance of bullying and harassment. Where the values that all of us who work here believe in – are the values we live, day by day. And where everyone feels able to speak truth to power.

Rona Fairhead, Chairman of the BBC Trust says:

It is clear that the public expect the BBC to keep to the highest possible standards, but the BBC failed.  And Dame Janet finds the status given to celebrities, the BBC’s hierarchical structure and the lack of cohesion between its different departments present unique challenges which must be overcome if serious wrongdoing is to be exposed. The cultural change that must take place has to be both substantial and permanent. The BBC must engage fully with its staff, listen to its critics and submit policies and culture to external scrutiny…We need to restore the public’s trust in the BBC. We need to demonstrate – through our actions – that the BBC’s values are for everyone and non-negotiable.

Three years ago the Respect at Work Review – set-up to investigate current concerns about the abuse of power at the corporation – also suggested a renewed commitment to the BBC’s values and ethos. Endorsing the Review the Management Board said, “the BBC must be an organisation which lives and breathes its values.” The Review promised ‘a re-launch of the BBC Values, and a relentless focus on the values by all staff’ as a key response to bullying and harassment.

The BBC Values are widely disseminated and published on our internal and external websites. They are printed on the back of most BBC identity cards. They represent a distillation of the essential mission and vision of the BBC and should be at the heart of everything the BBC does, and the way in which it conducts itself…The BBC is an organization which inspires a strong affiliation from the majority of people working with it. The BBC mission is often a personally shared endeavour and it is a cause for real pride to be part of it. Our staff and managers believe strongly in the BBC Values and are committed to trying to make the BBC a good place to work.”

Despite the BBC’s bedrock of unimpeachable ethical and editorial standards, Dame Janet included the following in her conclusions.

 I was particularly saddened by the fact that a few witnesses from the BBC who gave evidence to the Review asked for an assurance that their names would not be published in my Report before they were willing to say anything even mildly critical of the BBC.  The reason appeared to be that they feared some form of reprisal.  I was told that an atmosphere of fear still exists today in the BBC possibly because obtaining work in the BBC is highly competitive and many people no longer have the security of an employment contract.  My concern in this regard was shared by the Report of the BBC’s Respect At Work Review (published in May 2013) which examined the culture and practices of the BBC in recent years.  That report mentioned fear of reprisal, fear of losing your job, fear of being known as a troublemaker and fear of not being promoted as reasons why complaints might not be made.  Some members of staff tried to report complaints or raise concerns of a sexual nature through the BBC’s Personnel department, as it was then known.  These reports did not relate to Savile. The evidence was that such reports were often not properly dealt with during the 1970s, 1980s and even in the 1990s.  Sometimes, the complainant was told that it was not in her best interests to pursue the complaint.  Sometimes it was implied that the complainant’s own attitude was the problem.  I have not been asked to investigate the Human Resources Department since the Savile years, but I do note that the BBC’s Respect at Work Review stated that there was a common perception that the Human Resources department “worked for management” and did not provide support for employees who wanted to make a complaint or raise a concern.  Unfortunately, that finding resonates with my findings in relation to the Savile period.

Dame Janet is on firm ground. I have not encountered more fearful newsrooms even under apartheid. The thugs from HR knee-cap on command.

Here’s Tony Hall again:

So what happens now? This has been one of the most important inquiries in the history of this organisation. It has interviewed almost 500 people, taken nearly three years and cost £6.5m. It covers 1,000 pages and three volumes. And the nature of this inquiry has placed a very great responsibility on everyone to be open and frank, however painful for them personally, to help us understand and learn from what happened in the past.

It is useful to flag-up Maistry v BBC in which the claimant alleged he was sacked because of his belief in the BBC Values. Given Dame Janet’s findings it is entirely conceivable that senior management remains unaware of the case.

Whether a belief in the BBC Values would amount to a ‘philosophical belief’ attracting legal protection was considered by a tribunal at a Pre-hearing Review in February 2011. In an extraordinary breach of public faith the BBC argued that it did not expect employees to believe in its values. Here is how EJ Pauline Hughes summarised the BBC’s argument in her judgment.

It was the respondent’s case that the legislation could not have been intended to cover a belief of this nature because really it was no more than a “mission statement” i.e. a goal to aspire to, rather than a belief. The respondent’s representative argued that if the claimant was right, then it would follow that beliefs in the aims and values of a whole host of public organisations, if genuinely held, could amount to philosophical beliefs. By way of example, the respondent suggested that a belief that the aim of the NHS should first and foremost be to look after the health and welfare of its patients could, if the claimant were correct, amount to belief for the purposes of the 2003 Regulations, but it would be absurd for that to be the case. In oral submissions, the respondent’s representative went further, and suggested that if the claimant was correct to assert that he held a philosophical belief, this could extend the protection of the 2003 Regulations to employees of private commercial concerns who could seek to argue that they believed in their employer’s mission statement.

The BBC’s cardinal value is trust. Yet it patently traduced its own values and claimed it would be absurd to allow workers, even at the NHS, to challenge institutional and corporate hypocrisy. Judge Hughes rejected the BBC’s argument.

The BBC has a unique place in our society – it is partly funded by the public and it has public purposes, which set it apart from commercial providers of media services. Whilst I accepted that the public purposes set out in the Royal Charter and Agreement might fairly be characterised as idealistic in nature and/or as a “mission statement”, that does not negate the fact that the evidence before me was that those purposes arise because of a shared belief in the importance of public service broadcasting in a democratic society. I accepted that the claimant was right to argue that neither the 2003 Regulations nor Nicholson provide authority for the proposition that the public aims of an organisation cannot amount to a philosophical belief if those aims are the result of an underlying philosophical belief. It is worth noting that the aims include “sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”. Those are weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour.

Judge Hughes applied the criteria given in Nicholson – the landmark global warming case – and found the claimant held a ‘philosophical  belief’ in the BBC Values. The assertion that the BBC Values are a ‘mission statement’ was quite irrelevant. She described the claimants belief in short as “a belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting”.

At the month long trial in 2012  – which went unreported – ten managers and a presenter gave evidence. They claimed they subscribed to the BBC Values but were unaware of the claimant’s belief and so could not have discriminated. The BBC’s legal representative argued that although the BBC Values were commendable they effectively amounted to a mission statement.  EJ Hilary Harding found on the evidence of the BBC that the Values are a mission statement like that of other corporations. This destroyed the claimant’s case. Following the publication of the  Respect at Work Review, Judge Harding clarified her judgment.

For the avoidance of doubt E J Hughes at the Pre-hearing Review found that the claimant did have a protected philosophical belief –namely a belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting and that when he referred to “BBC Values” this is what he meant. E J Harding’s tribunal, whilst acknowledging the claimant’s protected philosophical belief, found as a fact that the respondent’s witnesses understood the term to mean something different – namely the term referred to the BBC’s mission statement, known as the BBC Values, which emphasized the importance of certain matters such as Respect and Trust.

In short Judge Harding acknowledges a clash of values. Disposing of the case in the Court of Appeal in July 2014, Lord Justice Underhill found the BBC  could not have known if the claimant believed in the BBC Values or simply regarded them as a mission statement.

The BBC won by misrepresenting the BBC Values  – which it insists employees  adhere to, believe in and apply – as corporate fluff. Now in the glare of adverse publicity Tony Hall and Rona Fairhead publicly espouse the same values as sacrosanct. This invites charges of hypocrisy and opportunism, undermines the sincerity of both the Director General and the Chairman of the BBC Trust and puts the corporation’s reputation at risk. Fidelity to the values requires that this lapse is readily admitted and remedied if possible.

I wrote to Tony Hall in 2013 but have not received a reply. In my next post I will  detail – in the context of Dame Janet’s review -what the BBC can learn from Maistry v BBC.

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