On the day I began to write this blog, I featured the BBC, specifically the fact that it had decided to disband the BBC Singers, a group which has been in existence for almost a hundred years and which is renowned for its choral excellence and its outreach and diversity activities. According to the BBC, this cancellation would increase its “quality, agility and impact”. I and many others think exactly the opposite. I went on to contrast the cost of the 18-strong choir which is a million pounds a year, with the BBC’s stand-off with Gary Lineker, the former footballer and sports presenter who had been asked to stand back from the football television programme which he leads every week after placing on social media a Tweet likening government policy towards illegal immigrants to that of Germany in the 1930s. This was not a one-off - Lineker is a serial offender against the BBC’s rule of impartiality for its employees. The cost of Lineker’s fees to the BBC is 35% more than the whole annual running cost of the choir. My intention had been to reflect on the issue of value and the fact that it would be possible, arithmetically at least, to retain the BBC Singers and pay a pundit £350,00 a year to present Match of the Day without any overall cost increase. Many people would probably consider that better value than just the one Lineker. A win/win perhaps.
However, despite my intentions to use these events as a subject for a blog, matters moved quickly on. By the weekend, all the BBC’s sports presenters had lined up alongside Lineker and withdrawn their labour from programmes they would have presented which were mostly cancelled or made unrecognisable in the case of Match of the Day which was a fifth of its normal length and free entirely of commentary. The BBC’s Director General flew back from a trip to the USA and by Monday had capitulated. Lineker was reinstated and made no apology for his Tweet. It was the Director General who issued an apology.
What, as negotiators, do we take from this? First, events escalated quickly: Lineker’s picket line of millionaire ex-footballer pundits rapidly shifted the power balance away from the BBC when they withdrew their labour and scuppered the weekend’s sports schedules. Add to this, the fact that opinion polls were on Lineker’s side because many saw this as an issue about freedom of speech in a country which recently rebelled against the “editing” of the children’s books written by Roald Dahl by “Sensitivity Specialists” and the publishers relented.
Judging the power balance in a negotiation is crucial and many get it wrong because they frequently underestimate their leverage. In this case, however, the BBC, as the employer and a huge corporation, flexed its muscles only to discover that previously unnoticed powers - their own staff and the public at large would rise up and make life impossible. Not correctly assessing and acknowledging the power of your counterparty can cause you serious challenges in a negotiation (although I think it fair to say that no one predicted the pundits taking home their collective bat if I can be allowed to mix my metaphors).
The real issue here, however, is the fallout from this misjudgement. Two consequences which are common when this happens to negotiators are evident here: loss of face and precedent. The BBC has conceded an important principle, that its employees and contractors may not give opinions on matters which impinge on party politics. The Director General has been blindsided and looks to many to have handled the issue precipitately and ineptly – faced with a revolt he did not predict, he backed down with seemingly little attempt to defend his own position. I predict that he will come under huge pressure internally and externally and may not even survive. Possibly more important is the matter of precedent – what do you learn as a BBC employee from this? You learn that the corporation is weak in the face of resistance and the broader that resistance is, the weaker the corporation’s resolve seems to be. This weekend has probably changed the relationship between the BBC and its influential and powerful employees and contractors forever and not for the better if you are a member of the BBC’s management.
I think that the appropriate phrase is “own goal”.