David Dimbleby spoke to John Humphrys this morning on Radio 4, bringing a veteran’s perspective to the current BBC furore. George Entwhistle, he suggested, is a decent man but not the right one for the job; he lacked the pugnacity necessary to stand up for an organisation such as the BBC at a time like this.
But Entwhistle himself, he went on, was only the product of the organisation he served; that is to say one that is hugely over-managed and where management speak to programme-making staff in language they don’t understand about things that don’t matter. Bureaucracies are self-perpetuating, Dimbleby reminded us. When asked to make savings the first thing they do is hire more managers to give effect to the cuts, which they then proceed to speak about in an ‘arcane gobbledegook’.
I’ve said elsewhere that to describe this management babble as language is to accord it a dignity it doesn’t deserve. It has no personality, it trades in abstractions and it is to all intents and purposes inert. Language must have energy, vitality, emotion, humour, all the human attributes. Strip those things away from the daily intercourse of any organisation and you’re left with a husk, something without spirit.
Last week I ran a workshop for a small group of people who provide support for the network of therapeutic gardens spread throughout Scotland. These are wonderful places where people who are hurting, for whatever reason, or who simply need space to be and grow, can find peace and the balm that comes from working with soil and plants.
An easy enough subject to communicate in an engaging way, one might think. Yet my group, like practically every other that depends on fund-raising for its survival, was struggling to break free from the stultifying grip of funding-speak. Their paymasters ask them to make their case for support in the language of process and measurement. They comply, understandably, for fear of rejection. Soon the language begins to permeate everything they do. After a little while it even starts to obscure their purpose, no matter how uplifting that might be.
People are starting to acknowledge the problem. A few weeks ago it was the arts community in Scotland taking Creative Scotland to task for its communication style. Now it’s the turn of the BBC, which more than any other organisation exemplifies this modern day corporate schizophrenia. To the outside world it represents the highest standards of communication, humane, vibrant and enquiring; yet it’s run by people who speak a kind of non-human half-language that only they understand.
Of course, addressing the language issue won’t redress the wrongs done to Jimmy Savile’s victims, or to Lord Macalpine, but it will help the organisation reconnect with its spirit and purpose.