A lesson for all governors

6th February 2004 at 00:00
The BBC's 'Hutton disaster' could have been averted if its governing body had played the role it was supposed to, writes Bob Doe

The BBC seems to have come off very much the worst in its spat with the Government over whether or not the Iraq weapons dossier was "sexed up". If this now leads to a BBC so afraid of controversy that it avoids reporting on allegations of wrongdoing in high places, we will all emerge worse for the Hutton report.

The BBC has a governing body made up of highly distinguished individuals.

But the corporation has suffered far worse from these events than it would have done if its governors had understood their role and been as well-prepared to do their job as any reasonably competent school governing body.

In short, the BBC governors blew it. The chairman Gavyn Davies knew it and resigned. But I wonder if he really knows how or why the governors got it wrong?

Schools are not often faced with the kind of high-octane crisis spawned after the Prime Minister's spokesman went ballistic over the now infamous claims broadcast to the world - or the world that was awake at 6.07am. But both BBC and school governing bodies perform pretty much the same role in overseeing the public interest in their institutions and ensuring fair play to all stakeholders - even those making a nuisance of themselves. If any governing body - whether at the BBC or in the smallest primary school - gets that wrong, it lets down not just the children or the listeners, but also the senior managers and staff who provide it.

I do not know any more than what I read in the papers about the pressures the BBC management and governors were under last summer. But like anyone who has been an active school governor, I know very well what it is like to be faced with the counter-claims and dilemmas which invariably have to be balanced when a crisis is such that the governors have to intervene.

In their own parochial way, the eruptions that school governors are called to quell are just as high-stakes for the individuals and institutions concerned: the parents who consider their child has been unjustly treated, teachers asked to do the impossible, headteachers expecting the governors to support their management decision, and the unenviable choice between one child's future and that of all the other children in the school.

The BBC governors were all highly experienced in their own fields. But what effective school governors have to learn to do is to work together as a team with a clear understanding of their role. They are not there as experts or to pursue their personal beliefs about how the world ought to be. Their job is to work collectively and in good faith to serve the public interest in the institution they govern. That invariably means addressing issues in an objective and dispassionate way. They should cool things down, not heat them up.

Their job is to protect and balance the interests of all the stakeholders.

That is not necessarily - or even usually - the same as the views or interests of the professionals who provide the service, or the Government which pays for it. If it was, we would not need governors.

It is impossible now to say how last year's torrid summer might have turned out if the BBC had handled the Government's complaints differently. They were not the only actors. The newspapers were in a frenzy, feelings against the Iraq war were running high, and various MPs and select committees stoked the flames and contributed to the miseries and the outing of Dr David Kelly, whose tragic death resulted in the Hutton inquiry.

But there was one crucial point early on where the BBC governors came out with uncompromising support for the robust stance senior managers had taken in the face of sustained attacks upon the BBC's reporting. As a journalist I cheered them for it. But thinking back to my time as a school governor, what was probably needed at that point was for the BBC to show that the complaints were being scrupulously investigated in good faith.

By publicly lining up behind their senior managers, the governors indulged in a gesture that merely asserted their independence. What they should have done was to demonstrate that they were acting independently and for the wider public good. All they had to do was ask the few judicious questions to which any fair-minded licence-payer was entitled to have the answers.

The most important was how exactly had these very serious complaints been investigated by individuals not involved in the decisions taken in airing the programme? If they had asked that, Lord Hutton would have had less to criticise the BBC for and its director general Greg Dyke would probably now still be in his post. If the governors had instigated a calm, objective appraisal of the facts complained of in the broadcast, and of the evidence supporting it, a more balanced stance confirming what was true and correcting any errors would have resulted. That could only have raised the public esteem of the BBC and put the Government's complaints into perspective.

Of course, school governors do not always get it right either. They may also be too anxious to support the head and overlook obvious injustices or flaws in the arguments or the procedures followed. So the disarray at the BBC provides a salutary lesson for schools.

But many school governing bodies do understand their role rather better than the BBC's governors seem to have understood theirs. The corporation now needs to restore a tarnished image. Greg Dyke famously "lost the confidence of the governors". The governors now need to regain the confidence of their staff and the listeners and viewers. They could do worse than call on the expertise of the governor-trainers up and down the country who make sure many school governors do a better job.

Bob Doe is editor of The TES

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