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.
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:
So the BBC DG has been forced to resign over (not actually) naming someone. Remind me, how many resigned over Christopher Jefferies?
— Richard Comont (@RichardComont) November 10, 2012
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.
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 was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.