No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Opinion: Another fine mess you’ve got me into


Hand in flamesFormer award-winning TV reporter Alistair Macdonald gets hot under the collar about the recent handling of the Brand and Ross debacle at the BBC. Even the director general may need training in crisis news management, he says, whilst BBC managers obviously need help to know how to keep maverick talent on a tighter leash.

Oh Aunty! What a mess! How on earth did the BBC get itself into such a tuck over the Brand and Ross debacle when it should have been so simple? This was a failure of management on a monumental scale, a failure of training as well as being crisis news management at its most inept. It was the Titanic equivalent of steering directly for the iceberg then jumping straight into the water and forgetting the lifeboats.

Photo of Alistair Macdonald"We all knew that Brand was the loosest cannon on the corporation's gun deck. The BBC knew too."

Staying with this nautical theme, we all knew that Brand was the loosest cannon on the corporation's gun deck. The BBC knew too. And we now know that they knew because Paul Gambacini has told us he emailed the controller at Radio 2 at the time of Brand's recruitment to warn her it would end in tears. How prescient was that!

But BBC management chose to ignore him and other highly-respected broadcasters on Radio 2. This management failing was then compounded by putting Woss and Wussell together. Suicidal. Now, call me a grumpy old man but I personally think that R&B's 'edginess' is the comedy equivalent of Tracey Emin's unmade bed. Tasteless rubbish masquerading as art.

Let's accept for the moment that they are 'creative talent'. Anyone employing creative staff knows only too well that to get the best out of them they need to be carefully managed. Management may need to be trained to make sure that this talent is kept on a short leash. You certainly do not hand the job to a 25-year-old. So...

Rule 1: When recruiting creative staff, make sure they know what is expected of them. This must surely be on page one of any training manual.

Rule 2: Ignore the views of senior staff at your peril.

Rule 3: Train management to manage risk. Loose cannons are dangerous.

But back to the BBC's response. It takes this lumbering dinosaur four-and-a-half days to come up with a partial solution. The director general of the BBC, the BBC Trust and, no doubt, a small army of lawyers and corporate communicators went into a day-long hand-wringing ritual. Those whose job titles are so long they barely fit a standard office door, fortified by chilled mineral water and tastefully expensive finger food, agonized with furrowed brows over tedious BBC policy tomes and producer guidelines.

And what did their deliberations come up with? Wonderful BBC-speak like 'fell far short of audience expectations' and 'dismayed by the affair', some self-flagellating mea culpas and a sacrificial hara-kiri from the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas. So that's OK then. Well... not exactly.

Senior management – including director general Mark Thompson – require crisis news management training. He and his top 50 generals are costing us £15m a year yet they clearly need some serious upskilling.

So here are my crisis news management training tips for the BBC:

1. Take control: It should have been sorted within a couple of hours of the 'Mail on Sunday' picking up and running with the story. Remember this was several days after the programme. But the BBC broke every rule in the crisis news management manual with a jaw-dropping display of arrogance and inertia. R&B should have been suspended immediately.

2. The quick bleed: By early afternoon that day the BBC should have held its hands up, issued a grovelling apology to all and sundry and sacked those with editorial responsibility for the programme.

3. Don't leave a vacuum: 24-hour news means that silence is not golden, it is leaden. That vacuum was filled by the media in a classic feeding frenzy. What were the Beeb's director of communications and an army of press officers doing? More heads should roll here.

"Anyone employing creative staff knows only too well that to get the best out of them they need to be carefully managed. Management may need to be trained to make sure that this talent is kept on a short leash."

4. Communicate: The director general – yes, I know he was on holiday – or his deputy should have been available for interview that Sunday evening. Yet, on the following Wednesday morning the BBC's own flagship radio news outlet, Radio 4's Today programme, was berating the corporation for refusing to put up anyone for interview. This honestly renders me speechless.

5. Be human: We witnessed the unacceptable facelessness of a large organisation, something for which countless BBC programmes rightly castigate other big businesses. The BBC actually managed to make banks look like great communicators by comparison. This arrogance was quite unforgiveable.

6. Put right what has gone wrong: Quite a long way to go on this one. Forget producer guidelines, just tighten editorial control of high-risk programmes and inject a large dose of common sense (which is pretty uncommon in the BBC). The evil eye should be put on producers to remind them that the job carries responsibilities. Get it wrong and they carry the can.

7. Learn lessons: And don't be so stupid, arrogant, inept and inert next time. Tell the public exactly what has been done to prevent this incompetence happening again.

Whatever your feelings about this shambles, do not be swayed by the pathetic and predictable cries from Tory MPs to dismantle the BBC. And ignore the fulminating and foaming from every other media outlet. Just remember they are competitors who operate with very few editorial checks and balances. The BBC remains a beacon of broadcasting excellence worldwide - but it does need a sharp kick up the pants every now and again and could use some timely training.

Former award-winning BBC TV reporter Alistair Macdonald has trained directors from more than 20 countries and is a member of The Professional Speakers Association. He is a founder of Alexander Macdonald LLP, a specialist consultancy and training partnership teaching better communication.
Visit for further details

Read his last feature: Are your presentations more Gordon Brown than Barak Obama?


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!