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A 'regrettable episode'? The BBC's crisis comms on Jeremy Clarkson racism row is falling short

Jeremy Clarkson

Twenty four hours on from the breaking of the latest Jeremy Clarkson controversy it is described by the BBC as a ‘regrettable episode’. Well sorry BBC but that simply doesn’t cut it!

How is it in this 24/7, always on, digital age that we all live in, that it has taken the BBC this long to react to a crisis that is attracting front page headlines? How is it that when firm action is exactly what’s needed, the strongest word that we get from the BBC is “regrettable”?

Since the Mirror first reported that the Top Gear presenter had used the n-word whilst recording an episode of the programme, we first had his denial followed later by a video apology from one of the corporation’s biggest television stars. Then came this BBC statement:

"Jeremy Clarkson has set out the background to this regrettable episode. We have made it absolutely clear to him, the standards the BBC expects on air and off. We have left him in no doubt about how seriously we view this."

Having spent more than 20 years working for the BBC, most recently as one of its senior managers and programme editors, I know full well just how important public approval is for the corporation.

I remember clearly how hard the reaction to the Russell Brand / Jonathan Ross scandal hit the BBC. Not untypically the BBC’s most senior managers responded, after the event, by introducing a raft of new policies and guidelines for programme makers and managers who had absolutely nothing to do with the incident. But Ross avoided the sack and served out the remainder of his contract. Public confidence in the BBC was damaged as was the reputation of the corporation and its leaders.

These events surrounding Jeremy Clarkson would suggest that the errors of the past are all too readily being repeated.

Whether Clarkson said what the Mirror claims he said is not the biggest issue facing the BBC. The biggest issue of all is protecting the image of one of the UK’s most cherished brands.

Because of its position within the media industry and the influence that it has on our culture, there are those who will look for any and every opportunity to knock it. I am not one of them. I look back fondly on my career in the BBC and I am very proud to have worked for what I still believe is the best news organisation in the world. BUT, and it is a big BUT, I do expect strong and timely leadership from the BBC. In times of a crisis strong leadership is essential for any organisation.

The BBC’s new director general and the senior team that he has put in place has to act decisively. Anything less and it looks like dithering and will leave the BBC open to accusations that it is protecting one of its highest profile presenters, again.

Anyone who doesn’t think that all of this really matters should take a look on social media. The apparent lack of that strong leadership from the BBC and its slow response has allowed those on Twitter to run riot. If the BBC’s plan of action, or lack of action, is to monitor the public reaction first and then respond, it’s making a big mistake.

People will make their own minds up about Clarkson but the BBC will be judged by us all on the authoritative action that it takes.

Don’t forget an organisation only takes control of a crisis when it is seen to be making decisions and taking firm action. If that means that the BBC parts company with one of its favourite presenters then so be it.

The BBC’s reputation is much more important than any set of viewing figures, isn’t it?

Keith Beech is a former journalist and senior editor with the BBC. He is now director of Core Management – Crisis, Organisation and Reputation, which is part of the Nexus Communications Group

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