Monday, June 11, 2007

BBC Monitoring's pain continues

It had been almost a year since I visited the headquarters of BBC Monitoring at Caversham Park, near Reading. When I visited it in late spring 2006, it was a bright, sunny day and, despite the temperature being in the thirties, the gentle breeze blowing over the lake created a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.

But the reality was anything but pleasant. The air was heavy with resentment, too heavy for the gentle breeze to blow it away. Recriminations flew back and forth, with staff pointing a huge finger of blame at the director of BBC Monitoring, Chris Westcott, and his senior management colleagues, for a multitude of woes, and Mr Westcott accusing his staff of defamation. It was a sorry state of affairs; despondency and despair on the one hand, and self-righteousness arrogance on the other.

Nonetheless, it has been more than eight months since staff at BBC Monitoring – the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring – had posted a blog through Pro-Veritas, and even that last blog sounded a little more optimistic than previous ones. So, I wondered whether BBC Monitoring had finally pulled itself together and stepped back from the doldrums.

I decided to call Seán Macstíofáin, the chairman of the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring, to ask if I could interview him. I did not know whether he was still working for BBC Monitoring or had been made redundant along with the 80 or so others who had lost their jobs. Nor did I know whether Chris Westcott was still the director of BBC Monitoring or had been booted upwards or downwards – or perhaps outwards. And what of the other characters in his troupe – Peter “The Dynamo” Robertson, for example?

To my pleasant surprise, Seán was indeed still working for BBC Monitoring. And so too was Westcott and his troupe – Dynamo Peter, Stephen Watcham, Rosy Wolfe, Brian Rotheray, Jon Eagland, Daniel Cameron, Irina Grinuk and Paul Knight. I wanted to interview Seán over the phone but he insisted that I visit Monitoring. “Why don’t you come and see things for yourself,” he said. So, I headed for Caversham.

This time it was a grey, dismal, drizzly day. A black cloud hovered over the old mansion and a cold, piercing wind blew across the car park. Seán was at Reception to greet me; he was as welcoming and as polite as he had been the previous year, although he looked about ten years older. It seemed that time at BBC Monitoring was taking its toll.

We made our way to the staff restaurant, which had undergone some refurbishment: it had shrunk to about a third of its previous size and now resembled the cafeteria at Sevastopol airport, circa 1966. As I began to sip my coffee, my attention was drawn to a group of people a couple of tables away. They had suddenly switched from quiet conversation to loud laughter, sneering and some expletives. I asked Seán what was the matter. He motioned with his eyebrows to two people who had just entered the restaurant, one with spiky, greyish hair, the other diminutive and sounding like Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer.

I started the interview by asking Seán what must have been on the minds of many observers of BBC Monitoring. Without further ado, here’s the transcript of our conversation

[Michael Collins] It’s been eight months since your last blog. Why so long?

[Seán Macstíofáin] The last blog you refer to was posted on 1 October 2006. Chris Westcott’s cultural revolution had just been promulgated. The reselected team managers and account managers – known internally as the “Band 9s” – were about to take up their duties. Some members of the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring argued that, in order to convince people – stakeholders and the taxpayers who pay for BBC Monitoring – of the justness of our cause, we had to be seen to be giving Mr Westcott’s cultural revolution a fair chance without publicly criticising it every other week. So, we decided to suspend our blogging activity for a few months. But we have continued to meet regularly, both physically and in cyberspace.

[Question] You have just said “Chris Westcott”; in the past you’ve called him “Christopher” Westcott. Does that mean that you don’t feel as hostile to him as you did before?

[Answer] No, not at all. It’s just that some of our members have pointed out that most people looking him up on internet search engines are likely to search for “Chris Westcott”, not “Christopher Westcott”. We wanted his legacy at BBC Monitoring to be high up on their search results, to follow Mr Westcott wherever he went, forever.

[Q] Your blog of 1 October 2006 sounded an optimistic note. Was your optimism well founded?

[A] That blog has been very widely misunderstood. All it said was that one member of the Westcott team had given a presentation that was focused more on bread-and-butter issues and less on propaganda. You have to remember that we had just gone through a long series of presentations by Mr Westcott and his people on culture, values, behaviours, and so on. We were sick and tired of all that, of being preached at about behaviours and standards that Mr Westcott and his friends felt should apply to all staff except themselves and their cronies. So, when we were given a presentation that was directly related to our work, we were relieved, even though many of us disagreed with the substance of that presentation. But the fact is that the Westcottians had no choice but to talk about bread-and-butter issues. There were matters that had to be dealt with and which could not be delayed. Thus, it would be absolutely wrong to conclude that Brian Rotheray, who gave the presentation, was somehow different from the rest of the Westcott crowd. He just happened to be the first to deal with work-related matters after a long propaganda campaign. Others followed suit, for example, Dynamo Peter, who gave a presentation in graffiti about clusters, but after all the criticism we received following the 1 October blog we weren’t going to write about that.

[Q] A presentation in graffiti?

[A] Yes, it was a pioneering piece of random art, a form of art which up until that day had been familiar only to graffiti artists. It it pioneering because we are sure that it was the first time it had been used as a managerial tool. Dynamo Peter should take his talents to the nearby Henley Management College.

[Q] In a previous blog, you claimed that Mr Westcott was trying to create a culture “where staff will never question or complain or criticise but salute, applaud and curtsey at every opportunity”. Is he succeeding in creating such a culture?

[A] No. But many staff are tired – tired of Mr Westcott and his entire management team. They are also deeply disappointed that their cries for help have been largely ignored by the corporate BBC management. I would say that a kind of fatalism has descended on BBC Monitoring. Perhaps this is what Mr Westcott wants.

[Q] What about you and the Dissident Majority of BBC Monitoring. Are you resigned to your fate?

[A] Ha, ha, ha! We shall do whatever we can to help salvage what is left of BBC Monitoring. We do not believe that Monitoring has outlived its usefulness, although some of us feel that Mr Westcott and his troupe do. We believe that, by publicly airing our grievances, we stand a small chance of someone in authority hearing our cries and bringing our managers to account. All we want is someone with a vision and proven leadership skills to take charge of BBC Monitoring. Is that asking too much?

[Q] Do you think someone will hear your cries and come to the rescue?

[A] We are realistic. The BBC is a large and complicated organisation, and Monitoring is on the periphery of that organisation. Sometimes it’s convenient to push people you want out of the way on to the periphery.

[Q] Many people will say that you are harming your own cause – and BBC Monitoring – by airing your grievances so publicly. Are you being wise?

[A] We have no choice. We started blogging a year ago because it had become clear to us that Mr Westcott had closed his mind to all discordant voices and was about to institute a Stalinist regime of absolute intolerance of all criticism, including constructive criticism. Over the past year his regime has gone further down the Stalinist road. Mr Westcott himself has never been tolerant of alternative views but we are now in a situation where his minions note down any criticism of him or his troupe and use this against those staff who still dare to criticise the official line.

[Q] These minions, do you think they are acting on Chris Westcott’s instruction?

[A] No, we don’t think so. They are just creepy crawlers who think it would be good for their careers to do a bit of posterior scrubbing. Some are simply lacking in self-confidence and intellect so, when confronted with criticism, they victimise the critics rather than use their persuasive skills, which of course they don’t have.

[Q] Are you just talking about members of the top management team?

[A] Oh, goodness, no. Some are at the top but there are also others at the middle-management level and others still lower down the food chain who aspire to be in that select group.

[Q] Last year you wrote a blog about Chris Westcott’s vision project. What has happened to it?

[A] It’s done and dusted. We’re now in the post-vision era.

[Q] Go on...

[A] The vision culminated in a video, a visionary video. The video was shown to staff and we’re now in the post-vision era, which may generate another video. Or perhaps a play. Or maybe a feature film. Or a street theatre featuring Dynamo Peter’s random art.

[Q] Will it be another eight months until we hear from you again?

[A] No, I explained earlier on in our conversation why we have not blogged for eight months. The silence is over now. Keep watching this space.

[Q] Have we missed anything out? Is there anything else you would like to say?

[A] I am sure we’ve missed plenty out but it doesn’t matter, just keep an eye on our blog. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank Pro-Veritas for their invaluable advice, for checking our copy and for allowing us to blog under their name. We’re also deeply indebted to the three legal firms who are still pledged to aid us, free of charge, in the event of trouble.

[Q] Seán Macstíofáin, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

[A] You are very welcome, Michael.

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