by Edward Qualtrough

BBC execs hunted for dirt on Linwood as COO orchestrated campaign to blame CTO

Aug 08, 20148 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

BBCexecutives agreed to leave John Linwood ‘spinning in the wind’ and trawled through material intended to unearth as much dirt on the sacked CTO as they could find, a tribunal said as it ruled Linwood was unfairly dismissed by the broadcaster.

As Judge Ms A Stewart ruled in Linwood’s favour regarding his dismissal over the failed £100 million Digital Media Initiative project, BBC Director of Operations Dominic Coles was singled out as being the “orchestrator and co-ordinator of the process” charged with getting rid of Linwood, with HR Director of Finance and Operations Richard Burdon one of his main allies.

Judge Stewart’s tribunal found: “Although Mr Coles paid lip service to the necessity of ‘process’ in his internal emails regarding Linwood’s disciplinary – a word which, in one email he tellingly placed in inverted commas – the Tribunal formed the view, on the basis of all the evidence before it, that Mr Coles was the designated, or self-designated, continuity ‘fixer’ charged with getting rid of Linwood, one way or another, timed to coincide with the announcement of the closure of DMI and the substantial write-down, and that Mr Burdon was complicit in this intention.”

‘Find the culprit’

The tribunal also found that following a meeting of the Trust Finance Committee attended by Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten, the committee’s chairman Sir Anthony Fry wrote to the Director General that “he should advise the Trust as to who from the Executive he considers should be held responsible for the outcome of DMI”, which the tribunal described as a “very vivid instruction to ‘find the culprit’,” prompting Coles to go after Linwood.

In a callous email exchange between Coles and Chief Creative Officer for Vision Pat Younge on May 8 last year following Sir Anthony Fry’s letter to find “who should be held responsible”, Younge told Coles that: “Linwood can just spin in the wind for now.”

The tribunal slammed the “quite extraordinarily unattractive tone and content of the email exchange between Coles and Younge on the evening of May 8”.

‘Hit him cold’

In another set of correspondence between Coles and HR director Burdon after 10pm on May 13 and early the following morning, the pair practise “rehearsing their script” in which the duo would tell Linwood formal disciplinary action was to be taken against him which could lead to summary dismissal. In one email, Burdon suggested Coles finishes the meeting by saying: “You can see this is being taken extremely seriously and I am determined to ensure the process and any outcome are fair. However, it is clear that the project has failed and where that failure is the responsibility of an individual, appropriate action is taken.”

As Burdon told the tribunal: “We hit him cold.”

At the meeting Burdon and Coles had been ‘rehearsing’, Linwood said that it was not his fault and that “this is a stitch-up”.

“I was demoted by George Entwistle, I’ve not had access to management board or the Exec board and now they are trying to pin this on me,” said Linwood.

Coles replied: “No-one is trying to stitch you up, this is a massive failure and as your line manager I expect you to take responsibility for this.”

It was after this meeting that Coles and Younge went about gathering potentially negative material about Linwood, which Younge sent to Coles who replied with words such as “indeed”, “telling”, and “more”, with Coles forwarding the emails on to Chief Operating Officer for BBC North Alice Webb.

However, the tribunal found: “In the event surprisingly little was found, and nothing of any real substance, considering that Linwood had been in a senior management position across many projects across the organisation for a period of over four years.”


It was while suspended on June 3 that Linwood was told by another senior member at the BBC he was the victim of a “stitch-up”. Exiting the building following an initial disciplinary hearing, Linwood said that he met Head of Strategy John Tate, who reported to James Purnell, the Director of Strategy.

Tate asked Linwood how things were, with the response: “Pretty rough.”

Tate replied: “Of course it’s a stitch-up, but you must have seen this coming. I hope you’ve got a good lawyer, you’ve got them frightened.”

‘Scapegoat punched in the face’

It was then Head of Communications, Gavin Dawson, who said that Linwood both was and wasn’t a scapegoat for the project failure, and that the public announcement of the failure of DMI and Linwood’s suspension “was meant to be a punch in the face before anyone else can punch you”.

At Linwood’s appeal to his dismissal in November 2013 conducted by Philip Almond, Dawson said: “A scapegoat, yes arguably, but then again arguably not, he was after all the project sponsor. The newspapers are always going to be after someone. Scapegoat is not the way I would characterise it.”

While Linwood was offered some respite by MP Margaret Hodge’s finding from the Public Accounts Committee hearing that “no single individual had overall responsibility or accountability for delivering the DMI and achieving the benefits, or took ownership of problems when they arose”, similar findings are littered throughout the employment tribunal.

It is agreed by both the tribunal and the BBC that with a DMI budget in region of £133 million over a period of approximately six years, DMI accounted for approximately 5% of Linwood’s annual budget and 5% of his working time as CTO.


The BBC is also slated for suggesting Linwood always gave an over-optimistic message in relation to DMI and presented it as always on the point of delivery, something the tribunal found to be not true.

Linwood contended that he had always reported factually and accurately on the state of DMI at any given moment and had hidden nothing. The tribunal analysed email exchanges with his team, former COO Caroline Thompson and senior stakeholders and the Director General. But the tribunal noted that he was encouraged to ‘get on with it’ by his line manager Thomson in 2011 and 2012 and also by Director General Mark Thompson, who pushed him to keep going on the Archive database and also the production tools.

“The Tribunal concluded unanimously that Linwood was not hiding whatever problems there were and was factually reporting those matters through the appropriate reporting channels and that it was a matter of common knowledge that there were project delays.

“It was also very clear that Linwood was not standing in the way of the accurate direct reporting of ups and downs from the DMI team to corporate finance and the Project Management Office.”

Steering Group failure

While Younge receives harsh criticism for his behind-the-scences dealings with orchestrator Coles, the Chief Creative Officer for Vision was recommended by Linwood to Thompson due to a “desperate need for a senior ‘owner’ from Vision on the DMI Steering Group to be responsible for the successful deployment of DMI into production”.

On May 23, 2012, Younge accepted the role of Vision ‘owner’ on the Steering Group, but its attendance record sheets show he did not attend a single meeting over the months of his appointment as Vision ‘owner’ until October when the decision was made to pause all work on the project.

Linwood comes out in a positive light on a number of occasions in the tribunal despite Coles’ efforts to discredit him.

In a meeting between Coles and Alice Webb, the BBC North COO said: “John did loads of good things. He values the BBC and what we do and drives delivery.

“He’s passionate about the BBC and sorting out problems, e.g. Project Dolby. He’s very solutions focused and champions things. He doesn’t disrespect people and has delivered, but he either didn’t spot the problem with DMI or didn’t do enough about it.

“With North, the Olympics, W1 – the business and technology were completely aligned, with DMI they weren’t.

“I don’t believe the project was set up well and that wasn’t John’s responsibility from the outset, but fundamental things were missed, delays in delivery, not meeting the requirements and concerns were not raised seriously enough.”

‘Not solely accountable’

Peter O’Kane, DMI Programme Director, also stated in Linwood’s initial disciplinary in July 2013 that other members of the Steering Group were equally accountable.

“He stated that, in reading the business case for the BBC in 2010, each of the major components could have been bought from the market but ‘it was because the BBC wanted to put their own wrapper around the solution that we are here today’.”

Discussing the failed project at the disciplinary, O’Kane said that as a member of the Steering Group Linwood was “responsible for calling it out but that he is not solely responsible”.

O’Kane finished his interview by saying he felt the process was “trying to lay the blame on a single person. John does have significant responsibility but he is not the sole person responsible.”

Pat Younge announced his resignation as Chief Creative Officer for Vision in July 2013 and left the BBC in January 2014 as other BBC executives lined up to lay the blame for DMI on Linwood at the PAC hearing, while Coles announced last month he will join US-based pay-TV giant Discovery Networks after almost two decades at the BBC.

Linwood’s suspension was announced internally at the BBC on May 24, 2013, and four days later the CTO who oversaw the London 2012 Olympic Games had the offer of a senior technology post withdrawn in the light of the adverse publicity.