Friday, October 31, 2008

Parliament ought to learn from the BBC

Cranmer has nothing but (qualified) praise for Mark Thompson and/or the BBC Trust. Here was a failure of control; an egregious error of judgement; an embarrassing lapse in standards. Certainly, Mr Thompson was a little late in taking the issue seriously; and certainly, 27000 complaints were apparently only received after people had purposely listened to the Radio 2 broadcast and decided to be offended. But even more certainly, many licence fee payers who could not be bothered to actually complain were somewhat disturbed to hear about the harassment of actor Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter.

And so one of the primary offenders in the public sphere, Russell Brand, felt obliged to resign. The other public offender, Jonathan Ross, has been suspended for three months and effectively fined £1.5 million. And behind the scenes, the Controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, has honourably fallen on her sword. Cranmer had never heard of her, and probably never will again. But her guilt is manifest. If she listened to the recording and approved it for broadcast, she displayed an astonishing lack of judgement. And if (more likely) she approved the programme without listening to it, she is guilty of a dereliction of duty.

Is it not heartening that those responsible for this debacle have either resigned or been sacked? Responsibilities have been taken seriously, punitive action has been taken, and the Controller of Radio 2 has displayed an admirable integrity.

There was a time when Ministers and Secretaries of State would resign. Ministers of the Crown are supposed to be responsible for (1) his/her private conduct; (2) the general conduct of his/her department; and (3) acts done (or left undone) by officials in his/her department. In the age of political integrity (which was, let us face it, under a Conservative administration), ministers would resign (or felt obliged to offer their resignations) over events quite outside their immediate control. One thinks of the junior British Foreign Office Minister, Richard Luce, who resigned in 1982 along with his two ministerial colleagues, accepting personal responsibility for the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. He said, “It is an insult to ministers of all governments, of whatever colour or complexion, to suggest that officials do not carry responsibility for policy decisions. Ministers do so, and that strikes at the very heart of our parliamentary system.”

And then there was Willie Whitelaw and his sense of personal failure when the Queen had an unexpected visitor in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace. Responsibility for the breach in security was evidently several tiers beyond him, and the public was not demanding his head, but he felt, as Home Secretary, that he was ultimately responsible.

And then list goes on: Keith Speed (opposition to Government Defence Estimates), Nicholas Fairbairn (Glasgow rape case non-prosecution), Lord Carrington, Humphrey Atkins (with Richard Luce, over the invasion of the Falkland Islands), Nick Budgen (opposition to Government plans for devolution to Northern Ireland), Cecil Parkinson (revelation of affair out of wedlock and pregnancy of mistress), Ian Gow (opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement), Michael Heseltine (failure of Government to support European bid for Westland Helicopters), Leon Brittan (complicity in leak of Solicitor-General's letter on Westland Helicopters scandal), Edwina Currie (inaccurate remarks on risk of salmonella from eggs), Nigel Lawson (role of Prime Minister's Economic Adviser), Nicholas Ridley (offensive remarks about Germany), Geoffrey Howe (Government policy on Europe), David Mellor (revelations in a libel case of acceptance of hospitality from PLO officials), Michael Mates (giving a watch to corrupt businessman), Tim Yeo (revelation of extra-marital affair and pregnancy of mistress), Earl of Caithness (suicide of wife), Michael Brown (revelation of affair with man under the age of consent), Tim Smith (acceptance of money for asking Parliamentary Questions), Neil Hamilton (allegations of acceptance of money for asking Parliamentary Questions), Allan Stewart (confrontation with anti-road campaigners), Charles Wardle (opposition to Government policy on immigration), Robert Hughes (revelation of extra-marital affair), John Redwood (decision to challenge John Major for Leadership of the Conservative Party).

Even if some of these were actually innocent, they understood that they were perceived to be sufficiently tainted in the public eye as to seriously compromise their functioning in government.

Contrast this with the present Labour administration. The extra-marital affairs of David Blunkett or John Prescott were not deemed relevant to their functioning at the highest levels of government. Looking back over the period since the war, a great cultural divide between the Conservative and Labour parties becomes apparent. Not a single Labour minister has resigned since 1945 because of his or her sexual behaviour (even the homosexual Ron Davies resigned for losing his ministerial briefcase in his ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common).

No matter what the issue, no matter how serious the consequences, there are very few who take responsibility. One thinks of the Iraq war, the ‘dodgy’ intelligence, David Kelly’s suicide, numerous accounts of lost data disks in the departments of health, defence or transport, Ken Livingstone’s anti-Semitic remarks, the SATs fiasco, the failure to deport illegal immigrants, peerages for cash. The list goes on.

Instead of doing the honourable thing, the tendency is to hide behind quangos, unelected bureaucrats, appointed individuals, contracted companies (not to mention the elephant in the room - the EU). And even if, as a Minister of the Crown, they were personally responsible for appointing the officer in charge or awarding the contracts (or surrendering the sovereignty), still they cling to office, protesting their innocence. Those who are directly accountable to the people are no longer the one's taking the decisions which affect people directly, and one might therefore understand the public's increasing disillusionment with and detachment from the political process.

There is no doubt that the Ross/Brand affair grew out of all proportion. But insofar as the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition both decided to enter the fray, both demanded action at the highest level, and both contributed to the media lust for blood, one might expect the BBC to demand the same standards of integrity and swift(ish) managerial decisions when members of the Government and Opposition fall short of the standards expected of those in public life. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition must manifest the highest integrity and act swiftly when ministers and shadow ministers are found wanting.

Unless, of course, they are simply hypocrites.


Blogger Dave said...

Who'd a thought it. The BBC leading the way in matters of honour.
Excellent article your Grace. Why can't the Tories make something of this?
Still too many skeletons in their own cupboard? viz Spelman? Others?

31 October 2008 at 10:06  
Blogger Unsworth said...

Your Grace

'Nothing but praise'? Why?

Thompson is, finally, doing his job - i.e. what we pay him to do. It may be said that he was on holiday at the time of the incident, but so what? Are we really to believe that in his absence there is no one who could deal with this matter? Perhaps it is time for the BBC to review its management structure.

Far from 'leading the way', the BBC has shown itself to have no standards at all. It is capable only of reaction to those who actually do have standards - and are not prepared to tolerate such lapses in those who they pay. Why did it take such levels of public disquiet before Thompson and his colleagues took action? Were they not remotely interested or concerned until the uproar?

It's my view that within the BBC there is little understanding of acceptable and decent behaviour and professional standards. It has become amoral, purely reactive, slovenly, and directionless. It is high time that the BBC returned to a regime of scrupulous standards and true professionalism.

31 October 2008 at 10:32  
Blogger ENGLISHMAN said...

The regulator of ofcom insists that under the broadcasting code,programme makers must have thier rights to freedom of expression protected,no matter what offense they may cause.Is it not an injustice that this "right" is not extended to the rest of us,but that some are jailed for thier opinions and others are arrested for a point of view that is not illegal in this country,some are most definately more equal than others.

31 October 2008 at 10:38  
Blogger The Lakelander said...

Your Grace,

I think the reason why resignation by MPs has become so rare is that almost all of them know that there is now way any of them could earn anything like as much by way of salary and expenses in "the real world" as they do as MPs.

When you look at the CVs of most MPs, you see an assortment of publicly-funded non-jobs or working as "Research Assistants" to other MPs.

In short - they are not qualified to do any job, other than be politicians.

We are now governed by a political class that is only interested in serving itself.

31 October 2008 at 10:38  
Anonymous william said...

Your Grace

In spite of your professed respect for her decision to resign, you are being most unjust to Lesley Douglas. It is not her rôle to listen to every pre-recorded programme and decide whether or not to approve it. A Controller's job is strategic rather than operational; others junior to the Controller are tasked with the hour-by-hour decisions which, among other things, should ensure maintenance of the appropriate standards. She is therefore guilty neither of lack of judgement nor of dereliction of duty in approving the recording, as it would have been inappropriate for her to take such a hands-on rôle in something so routine. Her "guilt", if she has any, is in failing to ensure that the culture within her department was capable of identifying and removing the offending material before broadcast. All the more reason, therefore, to admire her integrity in resigning.

31 October 2008 at 11:05  
Blogger Homophobic Horse said...

"Lesley Douglas, has honourably fallen on her sword. Cranmer had never heard of her, and probably never will again. But her guilt is manifest. If she listened to the recording and approved it for broadcast, she displayed an astonishing lack of judgement. And if (more likely) she approved the programme without listening to it, she is guilty of a dereliction of duty. "

"The financial crisis, detonated by greed and recklessness on Wall Street and in the City of London, is for the West a deep, self-inflicted wound. (...) If we seriously wish to repair the damage, we need to accept that this is fundamentally a moral crisis, not a financial one. It is the product of the self-indulgence and complacency born of our ultraliberal societies, which have substituted such pseudo-religions as political correctness and saving the planet for genuine distinctions between right and wrong and the cultivation of real virtues.

Paul Johnson in Forbes Magazine, 17 November, 2008"

31 October 2008 at 14:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your Grace will be pleased to learn Sir Michael Lyons said he was satisfied with how the matter has been handled by Mark Thompson, the BBC's director general. Speaking on the BBC Breakfast programme, he said Mr Thompson had acted "with courage" and had the full confidence of the Trust. "The BBC takes its responsibilities over standards seriously and recognises what happened
was completely unacceptable." Strange word to use in this context, courage, also known as bravery, will, intrepidity, and fortitude, is the ability to confront fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Is THAT what the BBC DG did? Or did he fall on a hand grenade and save his colleagues from certain death, as in MY view of "courage"?

31 October 2008 at 14:39  
Blogger Johnny Norfolk said...

Thompson does not impress me at all. At the very least Ross had carried out an act of gross miconduct and in any other organisation would have been sacked.
Thomson is not running the BBC, its the other way round,He has never had a grip of his job and is a poacher not a game keeper.

31 October 2008 at 15:01  
Anonymous no nonny said...

They are living in a Virtual World; and they are Virtual people who have a limited approach to the word 'virtual' - one which has replaced Christian and traditional understandings of both virtue and strength [with PC and Bullying].

By the by - I don't understand all this fuss about a mere 25-30,000 complaints. Are the virtual egos sensitive? Do they feel they've failed their own goals of 100% brainwashing? Don't we have virtually 60 million people in this country (depending on who's counting)? My calculator's hard to read, but isn't 25-30,000 a virtual .000something in a million?

And I thought 1 in a million was special!!!! Silly old me - I'd better reconfigure my hold on reality...

31 October 2008 at 15:59  
Anonymous len said...

Most probably Hypocrites!
Politicians live in a unreal world supported by public money.
How many would survive in the real financial market place living on their own ability?

31 October 2008 at 18:33  
Blogger Laban said...

"If she listened to the recording and approved it for broadcast, she displayed an astonishing lack of judgement. And if (more likely) she approved the programme without listening to it, she is guilty of a dereliction of duty."

Last night's R4 news reported that Ms Douglas "was aware of the contents" of the show before it went out. The source for that was given as DG Mark Thompson. Sounds like dereliction it is.

1 November 2008 at 23:12  

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