Entwistle quits BBC: what next?

Another week, another day’s news headlines dominated by the media talking about itself… though this time with some legitimacy, as it’s not every day the Director-General of the BBC resigns within two months of being appointed to the post.

George Entwistle and the BBC’s Catch-22 problem

The BBC Director-General is editor-in-chief of the organisation, ultimately responsible for all content. The DG must also lead an organisation with 23,000 employees, a £4.8bn budget and multiple TV, radio and online outlets. I think it’s fair to say those are two tricky jobs to combine. What is vital then is that the man at the top (to date it always has been a man) has to create a nimble management structure and be able to delegate decisions to trusted colleagues. I think it’s fair to say those are two tricky things to get right.

George Entwistle appears to have been caught in a Catch-22 loop: rightly trying not to interfere with the editorial independence of Newsnight (which as one of its former editors he would have well understood) while simultaneously being held to account for a string of questionable editorial decisions. What lots of critics have been quick to pounce on as a “lack of curiosity” was in many ways an admirable hands-off delegation of responsibility.

It’s the done thing now to call for the head of an organisation to quit when something big goes wrong — but it does look like George Entwistle is having to carry the can for decisions he did not make in an organisation he hasn’t yet had any chance to change. He hasn’t helped himself with a series of public appearances, both in front of Parliament and John Humphreys, where he failed to convey the impression of a leader with a firm grip of events.

I know little of the internal workings of the BBC. But big organisations tend towards the hierarchical. And public sector organisations tend to be risk-averse. So my guess is the BBC is both hierarchical and risk-averse, a horrible fusion at times of crisis. In the case of Savile and Newsnight, it appears that decisions were passed on up the chain-of-command in a collective arse-covering exercise which allowed everyone, both senior and junior, to be able plausibly to disclaim any personal responsibility. When no-one is responsible, no-one is accountable — apart from the guy at the very top, as George Entwistle has found.

Media double-standards


As ever, the focus is on the BBC. That’s fair enough: it’s a broadcaster publicly funded by a compulsory levy, and that brings with it responsibilities that don’t apply to newspapers or commercial broadcasters that have to justify their existence in the market.

But it’s still stuck in my craw to see so many newspapers and journalists gleefully criticising the BBC’s shortcomings so soon after the Leveson inquiry detailed so clearly the press’s cavalier disregard for fact and feeling in its pursuit of a circulation-boosting edge.

The case of Christopher Jefferies — landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates and viciously smeared by the media — is a stark contrast to the BBC’s present mess:

And then there’s ITV, whose flagship daytime show This Morning demeaned itself on Thursday by pulling a risible stunt of confronting the Prime Minister with names of alleged ‘senior Tory paedophiles’ pulled off the internet. The only apology forthcoming so far from Philip Schofield has been for accidentally brandishing the list in a way which was visible to freeze-frame viewings, rather than for plumbing the depths of journalism. Yet I’ve not seen ITV’s chief executive, Adam Crozier, or chairman, Archie Norman, questioned yet about what they’ll do to restore standards, or what they knew and when about the decision to replace political research with three minutes of cursory Googling.

Finally

The BBC has seen crises come and go and always survived. I suspect this time will be no different. Yet it is under pressure like never before, with rival broadcasters and newspapers desperate to pounce on any indiscretion while self-righteously defending (or ignoring) their own mistakes. Its unique structure — protected from competition, independent from government, funded by a poll tax — makes this inevitable. How it responds, how it reforms itself — reducing impenetrable management hierarchies, trusting editors/creatives yet holding them accountable — will define how long that unique structure holds up.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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9 Comments

  • Mark Argent 11th Nov '12 - 1:42pm

    The Saville issue seems to hold something quite dubious. Sadly, the sexual abuse of children is not that rare, yet we are behaving as if Saville is utterly evil, as if we are attaching to him the guild/blame that is harder to name towards the larger number of people who do (alas) abuse children. Though I would not defend his actual conduct, it feels as if the media storm also has an element of scapegoating.

    And now George Entwistle goes. It’s hard to see what he has actually done wrong. He is so new to his post that he can’t realistically be blamed for any of this. Yet he has resigned, and I assume this means he has been pushed into resigning. This too feels likea form of scapegoating. This is not good news for the BBC and doesn’t reflect well on British society.

  • Mark Inskip 11th Nov '12 - 1:59pm

    After his interview on Today on Saturday morning he had to go.

    He had already stated he was unaware of the original Newsnight story until after it had been broadcast just over a week ago despite all the rumours circulating across the internet during the day. Now I am not expecting the Director General to be regularly checking what is on twitter and various websites but I do expect him to ensure that he has an organisation in place that alerts him.

    Late on Thursday evening I read the Guardian story that was in Friday’s edition and immediately thought that if it was correct then the BBC would have a major issue to deal with. Again I would have expected Entwhistle would have had an organisation in place to immediately flag this to him. Yet, as he stated on Today, he was not aware of the story even on Friday morning (when it was several hours old) because he was too busy writing a speech.

    The only conclusion you can draw is that he’s just not cut out for the DG job.

  • George Entwistle, rising to Director General of the BBC is classic Peter Principle. I’ve rarely seen anyone as clueless.

  • Keith Browning 11th Nov '12 - 4:37pm

    Can’t help but think that there is something going on to divert the discussion away from the original topic. The one that started all this. The innocent bystanders are being punished and the guilty might well go free.

  • The problem was the BBC suffered a catastrophic failure (or absence) of control and this guy didn’t look like he was going to get any control anytime soon…

    There is a bias in the BBC (as Andrew Mar has explained in the past) and in this case it looks like there was a partisan attempt to stick it to the Tories from the national broadcaster. There is plenty to attack the Tories with there is no need to defame individual, retired elderly Tories in such a scandalous way.

  • And nearly half a million pounds in lieu of notice.

    “This reflects the fact that he will continue to help on BBC business, most specifically the two ongoing inquiries

    What planet do these people inhabit? Actually, are they even in the same galaxy?

  • “There is a bias in the BBC (as Andrew Mar has explained in the past) and in this case it looks like there was a partisan attempt to stick it to the Tories from the national broadcaster.”

    Just for a bit of objectivity here, I’ve watched Marr’s programme’s in the past and come to the conclusion that he is biased towards the Tories, capitalism and Thatcher. Personally, I’ve wondered why the BBC has allowed him the opportunity to air his own biased opinions.

  • Dave Simpson 12th Nov '12 - 9:52am

    @Keith
    I too thought it was an attempt to divert attention away from the Tory Politicians allegedly involved- who were not AFAIK ever actually named by the BBC, though the names were being badied about all over the internet. – for which the BBC have no responsibility.

    The Savile issue is rather different. Stories were being told around the BBC as far bac k as the late ’70s, to my knowledge. But the Cult of Personality(which is still with us) meant that nobody dared say anything in public until now.

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