Sunday, July 30, 2006

Global News guru to visit BBC Monitoring

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

Richard Sambrook, the Director of the BBC’s Global News Division, is to visit BBC Monitoring on Tuesday 1 August.

The Global News Division is made up of BBC World Service radio, BBC Monitoring, BBC World television and the BBC's international facing online news services.

In an email to BBC Monitoring staff, Christopher Westcott, the current Director of Monitoring, said that Mr Sambrook “wants to get out and about and meet as many of you as possible - he'll also be hosting an open Q&A at 1330-1430 BST in the Conference Room”. We encourage as many staff as possible to attend the question-and-answer session, which we hope will not be attended by Mr Westcott or any of his so-called “Executive Direction” colleagues.

We welcome Mr Sambrook’s desire to meet staff - a desire which stands in sharp contrast to other BBC bosses who on previous visits to Monitoring almost invariably contented themselves with hiding in the Director’s office, except for brief cameo appearances here and there on the shop floor.

But Mr Sambrook is no typical BBC boss. In his previous life, as head of BBC News, he stood up to the bullying of Tony Blair and his spokesman, Alastair Campbell, during the Andrew Gilligan affair in 2003. Together with the then Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, he showed courage and principle - extremely rare commodities in people at his level in the BBC.

It is our sincere desire that Mr Sambrook will show similar courage and principle during his visit to BBC Monitoring and challenge Mr Westcott on all the issues that we have aired in our postings on this blog, in particular "J’Accuse" and "The reality of cultural transformation at BBC Monitoring".

Monday, July 24, 2006

Racism at BBC Monitoring?

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

Over the past few weeks we have received numerous emails alleging racism at BBC Monitoring. Many of the emails came from staff who do not belong to our group, the Dissident Majority. Most were sent by people who can be described as white English - not Scots, Welsh or white European, nor the Africans, Afghans, Arabs, Central Asians, Kurds, Persians, peoples of the Caucasus or the other nationalities that have been excluded from BBC Monitoring’s upper echelons.

The most worrying of the the emails we have received are those which allege a certain source of the purported racism. Most disconcerting of all are those that give specific details, including the name and political affiliations - past and present - of an individual member of staff. The name of that member of staff is repeated in almost every email.

We have made no secret of our deep concern regarding the failure of BBC Monitoring’s Director, Christopher Westcott, to reflect Monitoring’s myriad nationalities at senior level, a failure that has generated suspicion amongst many staff that there is a hidden agenda to turn BBC Monitoring into a “white redoubt”. We had left it open to speculation that this may be due to institutional racism, to subconscience racism on the part of senior managers at BBC Monitoring or even to a deliberate policy to turn Monitoring into a reflection of some of its UK government stakeholders.

What we had not entertained, or did not not want to believe, was that the emerging white redoubt at BBC Monitoring was there because of explicit racism on the part of specific individuals, coupled perhaps with subconscience racism, ignorance, naivety, indifference or sheer stupidity on the part of those whose job it is to ensure that the scourge of racism does not raise its ugly head at the BBC, of all places.

The specific allegations about the existence of racists and racism at BBC Monitoring have put us in a very delicate situation. On the one hand, we have an obligation to expose racism and to name and shame racists. But, at the same time, we do not wish to libel anyone without sufficient, incontrovertible evidence to justify our charges - evidence that would stand up in court. Furthermore, as a clandestine group, we do not wish to expose ourselves as members of the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring and face the wrath of Mr Westcott and his cohorts.

Consequently, the Steering Committee of the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring was mandated unanimously by members of the group to work out a programme of action to address the allegations regarding racists and racism at Monitoring. To this end, the committee held a meeting with members of the legal firms that had kindly offered to assist us free of charge. We agreed on the following steps:

    1. To appeal to all BBC Monitoring staff, whether or not they are members of our group,

    • to send us additional specific evidence of racism and racist behaviour at BBC Monitoring, both in Caversham and the overseas units,

    • to send us specific evidence regarding the affiliation of any member of staff, whether or not they are in management, to racist political groups such as the British National Party and its predecessor, the National Front.

    Please send your evidence by email either to us directly or to Pro-Veritas.

    2. In the event of our receiving sufficient concrete evidence indicating that there are racists or racism at BBC Monitoring, we shall put this evidence formally to the highest level at the BBC and give them a reasonable deadline by which they will have to respond to our allegations.

    3. Should the BBC acknowledge that there are racists and racism at BBC Monitoring, we shall ask them to make public their acknowledgement of the problem and of the measures they intend to take to eradicate it, including a timeframe for action.

    4. If, in the light of the evidence we put to them, the BBC fail to acknowledge that there are racists and racism at BBC Monitoring or give an inadequate response, then the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring and their legal team will do the following:

      (a) Report the matter to the Commission for Racial Equality

      (b) Inform the national media of our allegations and of the fact that we had given the BBC a reasonable opportunity to address the problem

      (c) Hold a press conference at a location in central London at which we shall give details of our allegations and of the BBC’s response. The press conference will be chaired by a top UK barrister and will include several former members of BBC Monitoring acting on behalf of existing members of staff, who cannot go public for fear of retribution.

      (d) Consider further action which we do not wish to publicise at this juncture.

Owing to an irretrievable breakdown in trust in Mr Westcott, the Steering Committee of the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring, with the backing of our legal advisers, decided not to enter into a dialogue with him on this or any other matter.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The art of not being straight

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

Pol Pot tried it in Cambodia and failed, with catastrophic results for the people of Cambodia. Christopher Westcott thinks he can succeed in BBC Monitoring where Pol Pot failed in Cambodia. He, too, will fail, and his actions will probably result in the eventual closure or massive shrinkage of BBC Monitoring, unless his superiors and Monitoring’s stakeholders wise up to what he is doing.

What Pol Pot and Mr Westcott have in common is, first, a desire to obtain the unanimous support of those over whom they have authority and, second, the method of choice, coercion - in the case of Pol Pot, the threat of incarceration or death and, in the case of Mr Westcott, the threat of redundancy or dismissal.

For two years since his appointment on 1 April 2003 as Director of BBC Monitoring, Mr Westcott could only watch in frustration as staff survey after staff survey showed that he is as distrusted as his peers elsewhere in the BBC and his predecessors in BBC Monitoring. However, whereas his peers and predecessors simply shrugged this off, for Mr Westcott this was intolerable.

For most staff at BBC Monitoring, too, the almost universal lack of trust in Mr Westcott and most of his managers is also intolerable. As with any decent, professional people anywhere, they, too, would prefer to be led by managers whom they trusted. For two years, they waited for Mr Westcott to take measures to restore staff trust in management, for instance, by meaningfully addressing the problems of bullying and harassment and by putting an end to the ceaseless, tedious squabbling among his top managers. But he did nothing.

It is said that Mr Westcott’s excuse was that his hands were tied while BBC Monitoring was undergoing reviews as a result of the decision by one of its stakeholders, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), to slash its share of funding for Monitoring. As far as many staff are concerned, this is nonsense. Mr Westcott could have acted six months after his appointment in 2003. And he could have acted in the interregnum between the “Cronin” review in 2003-04 and the Cabinet Office review led by Sir Quentin Thomas in August 2004. Even a small gesture would have worked wonders with staff.

We now know that Mr Westcott had never intended to create trust in his management by addressing the causes of distrust. This is clear from his decision to reappoint almost all of the previous managers. Here, too, staff had not been looking for a completely new management board - that would have been impractical and unnecessary. But they did expect certain key changes.

We have speculated elsewhere on this blog as to the possible motives behind Mr Westcott’s determination to eradicate BBC Monitoring’s culture and corporate memory. The catalyst for the demolition job was provided by the £2 million gap between the FCO’s cut in funding and the funds which Monitoring’s other stakeholders were willing to provide to make up for the shortfall. According to management’s statistics, in order to fill this gap, it was necessary to cut between 40 and 80 full-time jobs - the ideal opportunity for Mr Westcott to launch his Cultural Revolution.

It would be futile to speculate as to whether or not Mr Westcott welcomed the £2 million cut in Monitoring’s funding in order to give him an excuse for launching his Cultural Revolution. In the final analysis, a large number of jobs had to be cut to save £2 million. And we all knew that a large part of the cuts had to come out of our bloated middle management.

What we did not expect, however, was that, among those who would be placed on the precipice of redundancy, would be some of Monitoring’s best and most experienced staff. Nor did we expect that the de-selection of middle managers would be so blatantly used as an opportunity to give greater prominence to staff who fit Mr Westcott’s ideal profile for Monitoring’s next generation of “leaders”.

But what came next is, for many staff, the final straw and a glittering example of the hubris of a management that has exceeded itself in the art of not being straight. While everyone expected a reduction in middle management and in the editorial teams covering regions that have now been deemed as low priority by BBC Monitoring’s stakeholders, the wholesale vetting - and possible dismissal - of other, non-managerial staff was never on the cards.

Since April this year, staff had been asked to express their preferences in writing (i.e. whether or not they wished to stay at BBC Monitoring and, if they wished to stay, in which department they would prefer to work). They had been told that the purpose of this was, first, to ascertain who would prefer to take voluntary redundancy and, therefore, avoid the need for compulsory redundancy, and second, in the case of departments that faced substantial cuts, to get an idea of where their staff preferred to work. The expectation had been that, in the latter case, there would be a discussion, or discussions, between staff and managers in order to ponder the most appropriate options for both staff and the organization.

However, surreptitiously, our top managers, for whose actions we must hold Mr Westcott fully responsible, have turned this into a wholesale vetting exercise in which all staff, even those in departments not facing any cuts, are now required to discuss their options with their line managers, even though these options would be known to the managers from the preference exercise. We can only surmise that the sole, hidden purpose of this last-minute sleight of hand is to ensure that, even at sub-management level, no one who does not fit Mr Westcott’s profile of the Obedient Staffer remains at BBC Monitoring.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

"I am Peter Robertson and I am a workaholic"

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

It started with a bang and ended with a whimper.

On 31 May this year, Peter Robertson, of Private Eye fame and trusted lieutenant of BBC Monitoring Director Christopher Westcott, announced to staff: "This week marks the start of my new role as Head of the Geographic Group, bringing together Magellan, Gagarin and all the international operations into one editorial structure. I feel excited, proud and privileged to be given the opportunity to lead such dedicated and professional people and well aware of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead."

For readers who are not acquainted with the peculiarities of BBC Monitoring, "Gagarin" was the editorial department covering the former Soviet Union, whilst "Magellan" was its equivalent for the rest of the world. Formerly known as Operational Groups A and B, they had acquired their quaint names four years earlier at the behest of none other than the selfsame Mr Robertson.

The triumphal announcement of 31 May was followed by what many staff interpreted as a wake-up call, a warning that they were about to be led by a man of action. "From now on the main Listening Room will be known as the Operations Room to reflect more accurately the variety of activities that take place there and our mission to observe, understand and explain," Mr Robertson told his new subjects in the same email.

As if all this were not enough, he fired what amounted to a warning shot across the bow of all those who had foolishly yearned for a return to some form of cosy stability. “From 5 June, the Operations Meeting held Monday-Friday at 1000 UK time will take place in the Upper West Wing Atrium area." Dynamo Peter has arrived and everyone had better look out!

If anyone had been left in any doubt, their illusions were cruelly, almost violently shattered on 9 June, at the formal inauguration of the top management team. This was basically the same team as the old one but now with a new, snappy name, "Executive Direction", in place of the old, tongue-twisting name, "Direction".

"I am Peter Robertson and I am a workaholic," Mr Robertson announced to a stunned gathering of staff. The silence was deafening as his words echoed from Caversham to the overseas units and back.

Everyone waited in trepidation. What will he do next? The answer finally came on 6 July, a full month after Mr Robertson had burst on to the stage with his admission of workaholism.

"It would be true to say, as some of you have been kind enough to feed back, that I'm not getting around the Operations Room as rapidly as you or I would like," he told staff in an email. And the reason? Mr Robertson wasn’t going to beat about the bush. "Without wallowing in self-pity, I would point out that, in addition to my new responsibilities for eight international offices and 250-plus people, a huge amount of my available time has been take up with job interviews, telling people the results and giving feedback," he explained in the same email.

He omitted to point out that each of the "international offices" is in fact run by a manager and, in the case of the larger offices, a number of middle managers as well, and that the "250-plus people" he referred to are all managed by team leaders. So, his responsibilities may not be as time consuming as he would like to make out.

Dynamo Peter, it would seem, had already ran out of diesel. "Over the next two weeks I ... intend to come to some of your team briefings," he reassured staff but with one big proviso. "I'm afraid it's impossible to make firm promises, and I may not get around to seeing all the teams during this round, but it will happen over time."

It may indeed happen over time. Sometime.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The reality of cultural transformation at BBC Monitoring

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

A dark cloud is hovering over BBC Monitoring. According to staff, who must remain anonymous or else face dire consequences, indifference and hopelessness are reigning supreme throughout Caversham and the overseas units. For readers who are not familiar with BBC Monitoring, this is happening in an organisation which for years has functioned largely due to the goodwill of its staff.

The key to this paradox lies in one word: culture. For some time now, Christopher Westcott, the Director of BBC Monitoring, has made much of the need for “a change of culture”. He has never quite managed to say explicitly which aspects of our culture he wanted to change. However, it is clear from his many utterances that what really troubles him is the fact that, every year, staff surveys show that employees have little trust in the top management team.

Lack of trust in senior management is in fact a recurring theme in staff surveys throughout the BBC, not just in BBC Monitoring. Mr Westcott’s predecessors had taken comfort from the fact that they were not alone in being distrusted by their staff. But Mr Westcott has decided to grab the bull by the horns. He decided, in effect, to issue an ultimatum to staff: either change the culture that grows distrust in me and my managers or else I shall purge you until I get the staff with the right culture - a culture where staff will never question or complain or criticise but salute, applaud and curtsey at every opportunity.

Mr Westcott initially avoided a head-on confrontation with staff over culture and decided instead to adopt a soft approach. So, for nearly a year, from spring 2005 until the reappointment of the old senior management team in April this year, he paid lip service to concerns about mismanagement and pledged that cultural change will be vertical as well as horizontal. But, as with politicians, it is always wise to ignore the words and focus on the deeds. And, surely enough, it did not take long for Mr Westcott’s deeds to expose his real thinking.

First came the summary dismissal of staff in the Central Asia Unit in Tashkent who criticised their manager. Then came the decision in October 2005 to appoint, without competition or boarding, a number of staff to work on a special project. Next came the accidental revelation in April 2006 that those staff had been promoted discreetly and contrary to the spirit of the BBC’s Fair Selection policy. After that came the failure, after being found out, to disclose the reasons or criteria for the discreet promotions. Then came the emphasis on behavioural and cultural change in the model for BBC Monitoring in 2010 (presentations to staff, 17 and 24 November 2005), followed by the reappointment of the old top management team, which put paid to Mr Westcott’s pledge that cultural change will be vertical as well as horizontal. This was followed by appointments to newly-created senior positions that failed to reflect BBC Monitoring’s myriad nationalities. Finally, came the eradication of experienced staff and corporate memory from middle managament and, most recently, a surreptitious attempt to vet all non-managerial staff before reconfirming them in their existing jobs.

The cumulative effect of all this has been the transformation of the culture of goodwill that had enabled BBC Monitoring to function through years of mismanagement to collective indifference and despondency.

But that is not all. It would seem that the problem of the new culture may be deeper and more far reaching than indicated by the litany of misdeeds noted above. For whilst Mr Westcott’s determination to stamp out staff distrust of the top management team can be explained by his desire to stand out as the only “trusted” manager at his level in the BBC, this does not explain his apparent indifference to the fact that his actions are actually alienating the vast majority of staff and, therefore, will generate even more distrust towards him and his colleagues.

Hence the suspicion that Mr Westcott’s resolve to transform BBC Monitoring’s dynamic culture into a sterile, military-style culture of deference and obedience may have another dimension. It is a matter of public record that, following the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s decision to slash its share of funding Monitoring, other stakeholders stepped in, dug deep into their pockets and, ultimately, saved the organisation’s skin. It is the belief of many staff - and we stress that, at this stage, it is only a belief - that those stakeholders are now at least implicitly demanding the quo for their quid, in the sense of requiring BBC Monitoring to transform itself in their own image.

Alternatively, it may be that, in his eagerness to ingratiate himself with Monitoring’s “saviours” and, perhaps, maximise the chances of their continuing to fund the organisation, Mr Westcott is second-guessing what they would ideally like BBC Monitoring to look like in 2010, when the next round of negotiations with the stakeholders over future funding is due. If true, this would explain many things, from the apparent desire to purge independent minds, to the appointing, without competition or boarding, of a number of staff with certain common characteristics to work on a special project for one of BBC Monitoring’s sponsors, to the discreet promotion of those staff, to the failure to reflect Monitoring’s various nationalities at senior level.

That is our suspicion, the suspicion of staff at BBC Monitoring. The onus is on Mr Westcott, his superiors in the BBC and Monitoring’s stakeholders to prove otherwise. If they don’t, then we can only slide further into indifference and despondency.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

BBC Monitoring loses a prized asset

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

Staff at BBC Monitoring bade farewell on Monday 3 July to one of their highly prized assets, the Media Services team, which has been abolished as part of a downsizing of BBC Monitoring initiated by Director Christopher Westcott.

The move was announced by Mr Westcott at a staff briefing, a copy of which had been posted on the Intranet.

“From today Media Services will begin its integration into the new Supra-Geographic Group,” Mr Westcott proclaimed, adding that Ray Cooke, who had decided to take voluntary redundancy, “has now handed responsibility for the Media Services team over to Steve Watcham”.

Steve Watcham was promoted in May this year to head the newly-created Supra-Geographic Group, which consists of the rumps of three former departments: News and Multimedia, Research and Media Services. During the local elections that took place in the same month he stood for the Conservative Party in the Norcot Ward of Reading and came second to the ruling Labour Party’s candidate.

The Media Services team consisted of editors and technicians specialising in the politics and technical infrastructure of the media industry, and copyright experts. Whilst some of them will be subsumed into the amorphous new group and will be expected to contribute to other work unrelated to their areas of expertise, others will be forced to take redundancy.

According to Mr Westcott, the blending of the Media Services department into the Supra-Geographic Group will not compromise BBC Monitoring’s media expertise. In his briefing document, he said: “In our mission to ‘observe, understand and explain’ we will need, more than ever, to ensure our media expertise is nurtured and grown.”

However, one former manager fears that the exact opposite will happen, in that the “takeover” of Media Services will dilute the skills of some media experts and drive others to seek employment elsewhere.

Speaking strictly on condition of anonymity, the ex-manager said: “There are people in Media Services who have great skills and a fantastic knowledge of the media industry - knowledge which they have accumulated over many years. I have always thought of Media Services as the throbbing heart and the bone marrow of BBC Monitoring which provide the framework of the entire operation. Their expertise rivals that of any other media specialists in the country. I am pretty sure they would have no problem finding better jobs elsewhere, within or without the BBC. Their loss would be an absolute tragedy, a coup de grace, for BBC Monitoring. Without these media specialists the organisation will start drifting, like a boat whose navigator has been thrown overboard in order to make room for cheap labour.”

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The missed opportunity of Sir Andrew Burns’s visit to BBC Monitoring

The following submission was received by Pro-Veritas from a verified email account used by BBC Monitoring staff.

On Thursday 29 June, BBC Monitoring in Caversham played host to Sir Andrew Burns, the BBC International Governor with responsibility for the BBC Global News Division (i.e. BBC Monitoring, BBC World Service and BBC World TV).

In actual fact, very few of us caught sight of Sir Andrew, but this came as no surprise. The previous day, our Director, Christopher Westcott, sent an email to all staff advising us that the Governor “first visited Caversham last autumn when he had the opportunity to meet many teams” and that, on this occasion, he will have time to meet only a few staff, namely, the Persian team, the media specialists and the video team.

If we were in Mr Westcott’s shoes, we would have implored Sir Andrew to stay on in Caversham for just a little bit longer, especially since few staff had a chance to see him last autumn either. In fact, we would have arranged for him to meet all staff in Caversham and, via video link, in the overseas offices as well. Why?

According to the BBC Governors’ website, among their functions are to supervise the activities of the BBC, “particularly those of senior management, and ensure its accountability to licence payers both directly and via Parliament”. They go on to underline the point: “In some ways we're like the Board of a plc, in that we're here to keep an eye on those running the Corporation and make sure they do it properly” [emphasis added].

With these admirable functions in mind, what a golden opportunity Sir Andrew’s presence was for Mr Westcott to try to lift the deep sense of despair, disappointment and hopelessness that has gripped staff by letting Sir Andrew hear our concerns and grievances, and maybe even lift us out of our acute depression with a reassurance - a reassurance that the Governors will duly exercise their function and supervise the activities of our senior managers and ensure their accountability.

But it was an opportunity that was missed. According to Mr Westcott’s email, the purpose of Sir Andrew’s visit was to be briefed on financial and bureaucratic matters and “to discuss Iran, the increased range of media sources we are monitoring, including new citizen media, and on our video actuality and other video products for colleagues across the BBC”. Somehow, we doubt that the discussion of “new citizen media” included discussing our postings on the Pro-Veritas blog, except, perhaps, how to silence us.

So, just in case you are reading this, Sir Andrew, this is an open invitation from the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring to spare half a day and come back and talk to us in Caversham and, via video link, the overseas offices. In the spirit of “citizen media” people everywhere, we - most of our 242 staff and 15 former staff members - met in cyberspace between Friday night 30 June and Saturday morning 1 July and voted electronically by an overwhelming majority to go over the heads of our managers and invite you directly.

Let us pour our hearts out to you and, hopefully, receive reassurances from you that what has been happening at BBC Monitoring recently is only a blip and that the BBC Governors will make sure that our concerns are addressed - not just heard, but addressed. We won’t, of course, be able to talk to you as frankly as we can on this blog since no doubt you will be accompanied by minders from our “Executive Direction”, but at least you will know that we are real people and that our concerns are genuine and acutely felt.

In the meantime, we hope you will spare a little time to read our other postings on this blog. We hope they will give you a taste of our concerns and an understanding of the sombre, depressing mood music at Caversham and the overseas units.