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We savage the errors of individuals – and forget the culture that spawns them

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

At first glance, it seems ridiculous that one disastrous segment of a single television programme can plunge the BBC into deep crisis. On reflection, it is inevitable; not because of the gravity of the mistake but because two stories have inevitably developed concurrently, each influencing the other. The first is the search to discover how Newsnight could have made such a mess. The second is a much broader judgment: was this an isolated mistake, or just one instance of a much broader cultural malaise, a disaster that was waiting to happen?

The two questions are further confused by an unpleasant mood of righteous outrage, a mob seeking revenge, even if it doesn’t properly understand the crime. Some of the mob mentality that mistakenly accused Alistair McAlpine of paedophilia has been redirected towards a root-and-branch attack on the BBC. When a famous institution hits crisis – whether it is parliament, BP, News International or Barclays – the mob demands as much blood as possible.

Lightning rod

The degrees of wrongdoing are very different, but the pattern is familiar. BP has just agreed to pay £2.8bn as part of a settlement for its negligence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP’s sins were broad and deep. Yet the initial rush to condemn BP, long before all the evidence had emerged, was rarely comparative. BP may have been taking unacceptable risks but so were many of its rivals who were fortunate enough to get away with them. Insiders in the oil industry acknowledge that BP, for its mistakes, was not an outlier in terms of cutting corners. It is possible, in other words, to be simultaneously culpable for serious malfeasance and also unlucky to become the lightning rod for popular contempt of the entire industry.

Something similar happened to News International over phone-hacking. It became a focal point for a much broader hatred of tabloid culture. The same point applies to the MPs’ expenses scandal. Many MPs who fiddled their expenses were guilty of nothing worse than following a long-established informal code. Do many people really believe that the British political class is more corrupt than its European or American counterparts?

Barclays was supposed to be the bank we didn’t hate as much as all the other banks. After all, it successfully avoided taking public money at the height of the financial crisis. But the Libor scandal, played out against a backdrop of nationwide austerity measures, rechannelled the popular view that the bankers had ruined the economy. The hatred focused on Barclays was less about manipulating Libor – which most people don’t understand – and much more about the conviction that “all bankers are crooks”.

At a more trivial level, it happens in sport. A team caught blatantly cheating attracts the ire of fans fed up with the much broader problem of widespread deceit in sport. Few outraged pundits stopped to consider whether the “bloodgate” scandal – when Harlequins rugby club instructed a young player to fake a blood injury to engineer a convenient replacement – was in fact not untypical of the widespread mantra of modern professional sport: “Do what you can get away with.” Harlequins were far from the only club to have committed similar crimes.

Damning a whole institution for one mistake is very easy. It makes for dramatic news reporting and columnar disgust. It is far harder to calculate whether the error was typical – not only within the institution on trial, but across the whole industry. The honest answer is that no one really knows. There is no such thing as a complete answer. We can only guess or speculate about the wider picture.

It is a sad irony that the BBC may now learn the wrong lessons. Newsnight was let down by woeful fact-checking and inadequate oversight. Yet the much more common problem with the BBC is too much managerial meddling, not too little.

In the creative areas of the BBC, there are countless time-consuming management hurdles between the genesis of an idea and its execution. At every step, the creative vision is watered down, a little boldness lost. Instead of writers, directors and commissioners sitting in the same room, looking at each other eye-toeye, exchanging ideas freely, the trend is towards endless “rounds” of distilled bids and emailed “pitches”. The pitch, of course, is the most anti-creative device ever invented, because it is based on the false assumption that an artistic project can be mapped out precisely in advance. It can’t. If it could, then writers wouldn’t need an imagination in the first place.

Managerial coup

My father has been writing plays for Radio 4 for 30 years. Since the era of John Birt, managerial process has been in the ascendant, creative programme makers in retreat. The managerial coup has not been limited to wresting creative control. In 2008-9, 47 BBC executives were earning more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £192,250.

That leads to a further irony. Perhaps it is impossible for any institution to remain creative when it has grown so vast and become so deeply centralised. The BBC has two central roles. The first job is to provide balanced and reliable news, to be an internationally trusted arbiter. The second role is to be a hub of creativity, developing and nurturing artistic talent and producing original programmes of real artistic merit. (It is deeply depressing that BBC television cannot come close to matching the quality of the best American drama.)

The BBC would have endured this crisis much better if it was less centralised and the problems could have been isolated within a specific department. Perhaps the BBC needs to separate its very different core services totally – just as the banks should separate their investment banking from high-street banking.

Not that the mob cares. Soon it will move on to the next big institution in crisis, guessing at the truth, baying for blood.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?