The Hutton Inquiry resulted in the resignation of BBC director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies, a major reshuffle in its news department, and a cloud that has shadowed its journalism since. Mark Thompson was the man brought in to steady the ship, and part of his reshuffle of the BBC’s news and current affairs division saw the rise of a more risk-averse approach. Ironically, some of the most able journalists at the BBC at the time, including head of news Richard Sambrook and deputy head of news Mark Damazer, are no longer at the Corporation. The oral history of firestorms, mistakes made, and lessons learned is a really vital part of institutional strength in news. When those who hold it leave, you lose something elemental about your culture.
BBC management is unusual in that it is held to almost constant public account in a way that no other organization is. It is loved and criticized like no other institution in the UK with the possible exception of the National Health service and the monarchy. If you grew up in Britain, the BBC is part of your cultural identity. To see it at its best is to behold something really extraordinary—for instance, creating new technological, editorial, and cultural standards around the coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics that genuinely have an impact on perception, public conversation, and national culture. To see it floundering in crisis, ricocheting from one poor decision to the next, is dismaying.
But this is the cycle of the BBC. A less bureaucratic, expansionist BBC was created under Dyke after the process-driven genius of predecessor John Birt (who won few popularity contests but introduced the idea of the Internet and made the organization financially secure). The Dyke era misjudged the importance of political expedience, and the Thompson era was the sweeping up operation demanded at the time. Now, the resulting timidity and second-guessing of news looks set to be swept aside by another cyclical correction. Maybe Entwistle would have done that, but now we will never know.
In 1986, Michael Leapman wrote a book called The Last Days of the Beeb after a series of similar political and editorial crises. He diagnosed a directionless, underconfident institution and prescribed the remedy of fragmentation. Twenty-six years later, we will hear the same thing said. The BBC indeed needs to reorganize more effectively for journalism, management, and editorial direction that fits the digital age. It needs to discover a journalistic locus that will be supported by the public but fills a void the market is undoubtedly incapable of doing at the moment.
As for Mark Thompson’s first day at The New York Times, the issue of his suitability for the job follows him into the management suite. The CEO of the NYT is similar to that of the director general of the BBC in that expectations for the role far exceed the likelihood of their achievement. One comforting note for the highly anxious editorial floor at the NYT is that Thompson has nothing to do with the editorial management of the paper. Rather, he will be focusing on finding new revenues and building a global strategy for the brand. Thompson has been accused of allowing these aspects of his work at the BBC to take precedence over whipping journalists into better shape.
Whilst it might come as a shock to the New York publishing industry to hear it, running the NYT is a tough gig, particularly as it is unclear what the actual task is, but as we have seen in the past month, it is not as tough as running the BBC.