What Business Can Learn From BBC Media Mistakes

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London Ltd 

The alarm bells should have rung internally at the BBC after George Entwistle’s first round of TV interviews when he was appointed the Director General of one of the world’s leading broadcasting organisations. 

For some reason he nervously toyed with a disposable water cup before talking and this was shown many times on many news programmes.  It was far from impressive. Moving your hands around and fiddling about with a cup/file/phone/anything is very distracting to viewers. We stop listening to what the interviewee is saying and just watch the hands. Keep your hands out of shot and you will appear less nervous, steadier,  and more in control.

The appearance of amateurism and a decline in viewer confidence was there right from the start. And it became much worse when a clearly under-prepared Entwistle faced the House of Commons Culture  Media and Sport Select Committee who ended up laughing at him.  

"Baffled Bumbling Clueless - BBC chief humiliated" was the headline the next day on the front page of ‘The Sun’. "Get a grip, Mr Entwistle, MPs tell the DG" said the Daily Mail.  This was an own goal which appeared to be exacerbated by a lack of thorough preparation for MP’s questions.  

Similarly the BBC’s news management techniques were very poor when, as the Jimmy Savile sexual harassment scandal worsened, they tried offering the D.G. and their chairman, Lord Patten, only for interview on BBC programmes – resulting in protests from  ITN and Sky and more  bad publicity. To get an interview with the BBC’s Director General, ITN’s Lucy Manning had to doorstep George Entwistle one morning  as he walked from his home to the tube station. (See pictures left and above) He also made mistakes here as he did not stop to give his interview. He kept on walking while talking, which always makes the interviewee look as though they are on the run, want to get away and may have something to hide from viewers. It also makes it hard for viewers to concentrate on what the interviewee is saying. It is always best to stop and stand still to give an interview – preferably a short one.

Why is it bad to be doorstepped? Well doorstepping (ambushing) a person in the news can make people look guilty even when they’re not. News management is better.  Volunteering (well-prepared) spokespeople for interviews on your own terms on your own ground is important. The BBC expects other people to be able to do it and cope with fierce questioning, but strangely hasn’t applied these same high standards to its own management.

After George Entwistle had to fall on his sword after only 8 weeks in the job, his replacement, Acting Director General, Tim Davie, also made some big elementary mistakes when giving his first interviews to TV news programmes.

He was looking off camera during most of his live Sky News interview, when he should have been looking directly at the camera throughout. This made him look worried and unprofessional. He also waved his hands around and gave an appearance that was more nervy and less authoritative as a result.  He did not wear a tie (which makes all middle aged men look smarter and more authoritative). The seriousness of the situation he was addressing surely demanded a tie? And he looked as though he need a shave.   

Astonishingly he then broke a cardinal rule of TV news  broadcasting by walking out of a live interview with Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan. He said: “Anyway I will go now because I’ve got a lot to do. Um the BBC is taking action. That’s what we’re gonna do. I’ve got a job and I’m gonna get on with it. Thank you Dermot.” He then started walking out of shot.  Dermot Murnaghan immediately called after him: “Well are more heads gonna roll Mr Davie?”  Tim Davie – walking out of shot- Pause- “Thank you.“ He then continued walking and vanished from view.

This odd behaviour was a shock to TV professionals and to viewers.  In the news report using quotes from this interview, the Sky reporter said that Mr Davie “seemed distracted” and remarked on his “presentational issues”.

This is a polite way of putting it.  It was code for – he broke a lot of broadcasting rules and he seemed uniformed about the basic rules of TV interviews - and he’s the head of the BBC.

Basically the BBC management has shown that it doesn’t understand the news business and the absolute necessity in reputational terms of handling news interviews professionally. Plenty of people make the kind of mistakes listed above when they come on my media training courses.  After some practice interviews, they can see immediately that they don’t look professional and they raise their game accordingly.  For the BBC’s bosses to make the beginners’ mistakes listed above by both the former and the acting DG, shows a lack of preparation and professionalism.

Why is the BBC so sure that it can throw its people into shark ponds without apparently giving them even basic shark defence training? It probably all stems from too much looking inward and  a general lack of management clarity about the real world.  

As someone who has worked as a BBC TV and radio reporter, it gives me no pleasure to find out that what many reporters and news producers have been saying for years about BBC management being rubbish (or stronger words to that effect) turns out to be so spectacularly the case.

Broadcaster Peter Snow told Sky News after George Entwistle’s resignation : “ I came from ITN to the BBC about 30 years ago and I could not believe the labyrinthine complexity of the BBC management.  How on earth decisions are ever made by BBC management I’ve no idea!”

The first rule of crisis media management is to have a Crisis Media Plan and to keep it up to date. The second rule is that a crisis doesn’t always come wrapped in a box marked ‘Crisis’.  Executives should be able to spot problems and identify which problems have the potential to become crises.  Good management including media management can stop many problems from becoming crises.

It is during crises that executives, whether as highly paid as George Entwistle at £450,000 a year, or not, actually earn their money. When there is a potential or an actual crisis you set up a system for  dealing with it. You rehearse messages both internal and external. Then you deliver them- convincingly and with authority.  None of this will happen without professional preparation and training.

Timing is important too.   You take control of the situation and don’t let it drift.  This was something the BBC also came a cropper with 4 years ago under Mark Thompson, Entwistle’s immediate predecessor as Director General.  (Thompson has just started his big new job as Chief Executive and President of the New York Times newspaper and he must have been so thrilled to have been doorstepped in the Big Apple on his first day by British journalists, including some from the BBC, asking him about the BBC’s current sea of troubles.)

In 2008 when broadcasters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand left obscene messages on actor Andrew Sachs' answerphone that were broadcast on Brand's BBC Radio 2 show, Thompson didn’t return from holiday immediately and took several days to get a grip on the gathering storm of criticism which then developed into  a crisis.  The ensuing row, which the BBC did not take control of, started small and grew very large, leading to more than 50,000 complaints, the temporary  suspension without pay of Jonathan Ross, and the resignation of the head of Radio 2. Astonishingly, it seems the BBC has still learned nothing of crisis news management since then.

It was one of the BBC’s own pet sharks, John Humphrys of Radio 4’s Today programme, who finally put the nails in George  Entwistle’s coffin.  On 10 November in a live interview lasting 15 minutes he asked the Director General if anyone had mentioned to him before transmission that BBC2’s Newsnight programme  was going to put out a report making “massively serious allegations about a former senior political figure”. 

A BBC systems man to the last, Entwistle confirmed that nobody had drawn this particular Newsnight programme, or all the tweets about it 12 hours beforehand to his attention. However he believed that “a serious consideration was given” to the report and the “right referrals were made” i.e. the programme was referred upwards from Newsnight for approval in the correct BBC manner.

The following exchange was the coup de grace.

John Humphrys – "So when did you find out about this film?"

George Entwistle: "I found out about the film the following day."

JH: "The following day. You didn’t see it that night when it was broadcast?"

GE: “No.  I was out.”  

Later that day George Entwistle resigned.  

There’s an old saying: ‘The cobbler’s children are never shod’; meaning that people often don’t apply to themselves the professional standards that they apply to others.  The BBC now has GCSE Failed (twice) in Basic News Interview Skills and Crisis News Management. Surely this time it can only get better- can’t it?


Published 19 November 2012