Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The leadership fetish

***This is a cross post from the BBC College of Journalism***

Ian Watmore's departure as the Football Association's Chief Executive has "torn the FA apart", according to at least one headline.

It 'may affect England's football World Cup bid', according to another. And is unsettling for the squad preparing for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa later this year. Apparently.

But hang on. Here's what BBC Radio 4 Today's Garry Richardson had to say about Mr Watmore's sudden departure. It happened because he was:

"Able to have such little impact on key decisions".

And as for that other stuff about World Cups:

"He obviously doesn't pick the team or coach the team ... the 2018 bid team is totally separate so it won't matter at all."

So ... the departure of this particular leader doesn't actually amount to anything.

Apart from a pile of overexcited news stories telling us more than we probably want to know, and more than we could possibly care about, the office politics of a body that's marginal to most of our lives.

It highlights once more, though, journalism's obsession with 'the leader'. An obsession that is close to a fetish and isn't confined to political leadership. The leader is the organisation, this addled thinking goes: so their departure must matter. Even when it doesn't.

It's worse when there's a problem in an organisation. Then, sacking the leader is the obvious and only remedy.

It's lazy thinking. Worse, it presents the illusion of accountability journalism without any of the inquiry or understanding that lies behind the real thing.

Years ago, in our World at One morning meetings, some wag would usually break a stumped silence with: "Maybe we can get someone to call for John Prescott's resignation." It was code for: 'We haven't got a clue how to develop this story.' And finding someone to call for John Prescott's resignation was never very difficult.

Now, of course leaders should be held to account and journalists should hold them to account. Of course leaders are responsible for those they lead and should take the rap. And that might - might - mean a leader has to go for the good of the organisation. But of course it might also mean staying to put things right. Or firing those who've got it wrong. Accountability journalism is as complex as the problems those we hold to account have to deal with.

Last week, six Birmingham social workers were sacked: the sackings followed the deaths of eight children in the city, though were not directly related.

And then, the inevitable question: Why were no managers sacked?

The reasoning, all too familiar: if those sacked weren't doing their jobs properly, then it follows they weren't being managed properly or that there weren't people keeping an eye on them - so they must be sacked, too. All the way to the top - after all, the bigger the scalp, the bigger the journalistic kudos.

The problem is that once the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on, interest in how - or even whether - faults are put right is far from the minds of those journalists of simple remedy.

Birmingham's new social services director, Colin Tucker, put his finger on it in one of his interviews. He'd been brought in to sort out what was clearly a dysfunctional child-protection service. And what he was leading, he said, was "a learning process, not a blame process".

And that's something journalists as scalp-hunters just don't get. Public services - like our police or our hospitals or child protection - don't automatically improve in proportion to the bloodiness of journalists' belts. It may need work rather than symbolic, top-level resignations.

'Heads must roll' journalism does us citizens no favours. As Colin Tucker reminded us, "for ten years, social work has been on its knees". It is "failing to attract the brightest and the best".

And that's a surprise?

No comments: