BBC and The Savile Row

Because I often help companies when they must deal with a crisis – after all, there is no crisis that does not involve dealing with the news media – I study how others respond to a crisis.

I am fascinated by how the media deal with a crisis that befalls them. Invariably, they fail. Typically this is because they have no idea how to respond when suddenly they are identified as “the story.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is embroiled in a crisis because of a scandal. They are not handling either well, and even as this saga unfolds daily there already are lessons for leaders here.

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, but more details emerge every day and I will likely talk about this again so I will focus on a few that are important for what I want to talk about right now.

First, the scandal.

Jimmy Savile, who died last year at 84, was a longtime television host and national celebrity on BBC. A rival network, ITV, recently broadcast a story in which it was alleged that Savile sexually abused young girls – perhaps as many as 300 – during his decades-long career at the BBC.

Second, the crisis.

BBC knew at least a year ago of sexual-abuse allegations against Savile because the “Beeb” planned a story on the accusations for its “Newsnight” program. That story was killed. But it appears that despite clear knowledge of the accusations, the BBC did nothing further – such as an outreach to the police. In fact, it appears that the BBC did nothing about the scandal until the rival broadcast its story.

Late last week, BBC Director General George Entwistle – less than two months into that job – was reported by one British newspaper as saying:

There are no short cuts: we have to acknowledge responsibility, apologize to victims, commit ourselves to find out what happened and cooperate as closely as possible with the police.”

Entwistle, who resigned just two days later, was exactly right. He is also at least one year too late.

The real question here is why did the BBC, which obviously knew about the allegations against Savile, not take any action or make any statement a year ago until forced to do so now?

The BBC itself has been reporting on the crisis, for example in a story that began with this sentence:

The sex abuse by BBC presenter Jimmy Savile has done ‘terrible damage’ to the corporation’s reputation,” BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten has said.

Patten, who has resisted calls for his resignation, was entirely wrong. He is also oblivious to this error.

It is not the abuse or the accusations of abuse, as terrible as these are, that have damaged the reputation of the BBC.

It is the failure of the BBC to acknowledge and deal with the accusations a long time ago and, if true, right then issue an apology, reach out to victims, work with authorities, determine how to make sure such crimes never happen again and more.

It is this failure that has made the BBC “the story.”

What does this mean for you?

Understand that life is a reality show. If the BBC had dealt with the reality of the allegations when these first occurred – and that may have been many years before the BBC last year began but then killed a story on these allegations – the corporation would not be faced with the current and deepening crisis.

Never turn away from a problem but deal with its reality right away. Otherwise, it will eventually come back. And the reality is that it will return with a lot more questions about you that you will not like and which you will find difficult or impossible to answer. And then you become “the story.”

Accept your own responsibility in the crisis. If the BBC even at this late juncture said that it erred in not reporting out to the authorities the allegations against Savile – even if the Beeb could not itself find any evidence that these accusations were true – there would be less damage to its reputation.

Never attempt to avoid responsibility by blaming others. Certainly the sex abuse accusations against the former presenter have affected the reputation of the BBC but nothing is as damaging as the inexplicable lapse on the part of the corporation itself – and nothing is as damning as an attempt to shift blame. The BBC is not accepting responsibility for its failure to act on these allegations before forced to do so. And so not only does the BBC become “the story,” but that story simply continues to worsen.

The BBC did not commit the alleged abuses, it was an employee. People sometimes do terrible things.

But the fact is that the BBC has created its own crisis by its failure to act when it should have acted and then its inability to respond appropriately when it finally was forced to respond.

You cannot deal with a crisis when you do not even know what the crisis is …

More to come …

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