News Analysis: Can BBC rise above comms crisis?

As the dust settles on the aftermath of the Hutton inquiry and report, the BBC faces an uphill struggle to rebuild its reputation for fairness and integrity, says leading media commentator Maggie Brown

The BBC is enduring a massive PR debacle with the loss of a dedicated chairman in Gavyn Davies, and a charismatic if buccaneering director-general, Greg Dyke. Meanwhile Dyke's energetic attempt to paint himself as a Hutton martyr is making it more difficult for interim director-general Mark Byford to rally his staff and assert his authority.

Further, however much Hutton's findings are disputed or rebound on the Government, the quality of BBC journalism is in the dock. The Hutton inquiry underscored the BBC's defective editorial structure, the failure to thoroughly investigate a dodgy story. Of course, the vast majority of BBC news and current affairs output is fine. Yet the obligations to be impartial, fair and accurate at all times, are the core of its public service duty.

That is its central purpose.

To be fair, the BBC moved fast in the months while Hutton wrote his report, to appoint a deputy to Dyke (Byford) to overhaul complaints, handle the politicians and tighten editorial guidelines, including banning TV faces from writing opinion pieces in the newspapers.

Premature reaction

But there is confusion about the outcome. Some presenter columns continue to be published. The rules for the improved system of programme complaints are not yet published.

Further, the BBC's PR strategy, pre-publication, with chairman Davies getting in first, to say he was not expecting to make management changes, was entirely premature and not worth the paper it was written on.

It gave an impression of misplaced defiance. In the internal investigation, Byford must ask if the crisis could have been prevented by credible tactical public relations, more astute corporate affairs advice, and now, better crisis management.

What many observers find odd is that the BBC, historically, has been very good at political lobbying, keeping open the lines of communications with government. It managed, after all, to hold off Margaret Thatcher.

Its ongoing work of parliamentary briefings, contacts with the all-party BBC committee of MPs, has meant it always has had well-versed friends in Westminster.

But Dyke inherited a fantastic license fee deal in 2000. He also was able to relaunch digital terrestrial TV as the non-subscription Freeview service, on terms favourable to the BBC's agenda.

Talking to people formerly at the top of the BBC, the following becomes clear. The BBC's small army of PR advisers seem to have been unable to break through and make an impact at the top. Dyke, as his letter to Blair published on Sunday shows, had been under persistent attack over war coverage, as had his editors. The mood was confrontational, months before Gilligan's fatal report. And calm, wise authoritative advice was lacking at the board of governors level. 'There was a staff failure,' says a former governor, adding that the secretariat to the governors should have found ways to restrain their desire to back Dyke.

Gavyn Davies received a number of warning signals from (Lord) John Birt and a friend of Blair about the seriousness of the row. But no one on the BBC side could broker a deal. Blair was prepared for a peace formula: the BBC would say it was wrong to broadcast the story. Government would say that the BBC was justified in running it.

But Davies thought a backstairs deal was wrong.

Governors given bad advice

The governors were certainly given some bad advice. In retrospect the 6 July 2003 governors meeting was a rushed crisis-struck affair. An ex-BBC executive says they could have issued a sensible press release, along the lines of: 'nothing so far makes us doubt the (Gilligan) report... but we are investigating further.' But the meeting went ahead because Davies wanted to get in first before the following day's foreign affairs select committee hearing. The governors were sucked into Alastair Campbell's agenda.

The errors were compounded when the report was published. BBC staff and governors who read the Hutton report were so shell-shocked they did not devise a workable response. At that stage, it was probably impossible to save Davies. But his qualified apology, on resigning, followed by a sombre statement from Dyke, left Number 10 furious.

'Greg should have eaten a very big piece of humble pie,' says a former BBC governor. 'It was not the right broadcast for him - it was too defiant.

Somebody should have said: "look here Greg, this is the script, Campbell is right, Tony Blair is wonderful".'

But perhaps no one could have advised him. He remains a man of strong emotions, who does things his way. Dyke's resignation, with BBC head of communications Sally Osman at his side, looked shambolic, but turned into both a personal crusade and a popular uprising.

The BBC governors have nothing on him. Both he and Davies are multi-millionaires.

He is a gift to the media. So the result is clear: Dyke remains the king over the sea, the symbol of an era when even the security guards felt part of one BBC. Byford is a tough and sensible man. But he needs good advice, and so does the next chairman.

BBC COMMS FUNCTION - RECENT CHANGES

- 1998 Sally Osman joins the BBC as controller of press and publicity for the Broadcast division from Channel 5 where she was head of corporate PR

- 2000 Osman promoted to comms head under Greg Dyke. Among other senior staff, Sue Farr leaves and Matthew Bannister returns to the airwaves. Andy Duncan joins from Unilever to replace Bannister as director of marcoms. Vanda Rumney takes over Osman's former role, while chief press officer Donald Steel is promoted to press head. He sets up a central BBC team to deal with news management. Rumney restructures the BBC's PR departments to stop competitive campaigns

- 2001 Channel Four strategic comms adviser David May is recruited to lead a six-strong strategic comms team as part of Dyke's drive for 'One BBC'

- 2003 Osman joins the The Network, a club of senior PROs and industry thinkers, created to tackle the PR industry's negative image in the media. Director of HR and internal comms, Stephen Dando and head of internal comms, Russell Grossman, announce staff 'values awards' in an attempt to get employees more enthusiastic about the 'One BBC' campaign

- 2004 BBC News confirms the creation of a head of comms reporting to Osman, in the lead up to the Hutton report.

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