For those not aware, i have the mechanical genius of a tortoise. When it comes to fixing the car, i open the hood, look at the engine, pull out my wallet and call the mechanic. Sometimes i poke stuff to feel less emasculated by it. Despite this failing, i do enjoy Top Gear, the BBC’s flagship motoring programme. If you’re not familiar with it, the stance is somewhat irreverant and universally trivial, which is what you want sometimes.
This week though, it’s caught fire: four of the top ten most read stories on the BBC site today are about a story that has engulfed the corporation. Jeremy Clarkson is alleged to have hit a producer, been suspended and the show is cancelled.
Now, in itself, you may wonder what the interest is for this blog, but it’s the way the story is playing out that fascinates me: it’s a battle between the formal and social, between the organisation and the community.
Clearly whatever Clarkson did is an internal disciplinary matter, but in cases like this, the truth, or the right and wrong of it can be overwhelmed by a good story, especially one where millions (and by last count i mean the 350 million viewers worldwide) see the potential for their favourite show to be cancelled.
And the way it plays out is fascinating: on the one hand, the Beeb is using it’s formal channels and reporting on itself through the news arm in a series of rapidly iterating stories. On the other, Clarkson is engaged with his Twitter army as well as ‘sources close to him‘ through other media.
Most fascinatingly of all, a political blogger called Guido Fawkes has set up a petition to clear his name, which at last count was approaching half a million signatures in less than a day.
What do we see at play here: well, the BBC is no stranger to social and is trying to tread a fine line between HR process and dissemination of information. They are sticking to the facts: Clarkson is suspended and they have cancelled the remainder of the series. They are also reporting on the dialogue occurring through the social channels, quoting Clarkson and others from Twitter. And, one imagines, they are clear that right and wrong is not determined through a public poll.
But the pressure is tremendous: not only the viewing figures, but the income from sales overseas, which is huge, as well as the sense that viewers are being punished, or deprived of the remaining episodes. There is some dynamic here about internal processes (HR and what is organisationally right) with performance (how does broadcasting the pre-recorded shows matter? It’s not relevant to any internal inquiry).
It is, of course, complex. They can’t be seen to condone it, if indeed any ‘it‘ is shown to exist, nor can they be seen to put profit above process. They seem to be doing the right thing: ignore the pressure and follow process. I don’t envy them.
In Social Age language, we are seeing some key things occurring: firstly, Guido Fawkes is able to use unrelated Social Authority to open up a debate. With no direct relevance to the subject, they are nevertheless able to open a conversation. As it’s social, and highly amplified, the BBC can’t ignore it’s existence. And, whilst not bowing to pressure, it clearly does heap pressure onto the organisation. This is typical of socially moderated pressure: it’s often single message, unaccountable and direct, and it’s amplified at speed.
The rights and the wrongs of this particular case are of less interest to me than the infrastructural elements that it plays out against: highly connected social groups, the amplification of subversion, formal authority unable to dismiss the social, social authority accelerating momentum and acting as a locus for dissent. Single message but very loud.
The underlying mechanics of communication, community and cohesion are no different from those we seek to harness in Social Leadership or Learning. Even if the application is different.