Will the BBC survive Newsnight and Savile?

Endgame: John Humphrys ends his editor-in-chief’s career

Last night, the BBC’s director general George Entwistle resigned after just 55 days in the job after horribly mishandling Newsnight’s disastrous false allegation of child abuse against Lord McAlpine. As I predicted on Ertblog yesterday, Entwistle’s encounter with John Humphrys on Today represented his exit interview.

The BBC is now in an even greater crisis than at the height of the storm over Newsnight’s scrapped exposé of Jimmy Savile. That was an error of omission. By contrast, the McAlpine libel was a grievous error of commission. That failure seems inexplicable coming straight after the Savile scandal, which would have prompted any half competent leader to insistent on the utmost vigilance in vetting future Newsnight reporting.

So is the BBC’s future in doubt? No – provided the new director general gets a grip on the corporation’s bloated and ineffectual management. (You couldn’t call them leaders.) What were they all doing? Why didn’t the PR team alert him to the tweet and Guardian story about Newsnight? Why did the lawyers approve the report libelling Lord McAlpine? It’s hard to imagine John Birt’s BBC scoring such an own goal. As the former Panorama reporter John Ware comments in The Observer, John Birt reinforced the Reithian values of rigour, fairness and accuracy during his time as director general – qualities disastrously absent during the latest Newsnight own goal.

And it is surely time to end the fiction that one person can be both the BBC’s chief executive and its editor-in-chief. As the FT’s John Gapper says, that ‘puts immense – perhaps unmanageable – weight on a single individual’.The BBC produced over 400,000 hours of TV and radio programming last year, plus a huge amount of online content. While no one person can personally review all that material, it makes much more sense for the director of news to be the editor-in-chief than the DG, who is in effect the BBC’s chief executive. (The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh disagrees.)

Finally, the BBC Trust remains as ineffectual as the BBC governors they replaced. The Trust does a poor job both as the corporation’s governing body and as the BBC’s cheerleader and defender. Chris Patten’s uncertain performance as the Trust’s chairman during the Savile crisis reflects this ambiguity. Maybe it is time to accept that Ofcom would do a better job as a true regulator.

Why Britain needs the BBC

In this moment of crisis, we must hold the BBC to higher standards while treasuring the corporation as one of Britain’s greatest creations. Witnessing John Humphrys interrogating George Entwistle was to experience the eternal glory of the BBC. As John Ware says in The Observer,’on any objective view, the BBC is overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding’. It’s hard to imagine the Sunday Times humiliating Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking. (The Times and Sunday Times were very quiet about that scandal until late in the day.) Panorama’s report on the BBC, Newsnight and Jimmy Savile similarly reflected very well on the BBC’s culture and philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, the BBC’s commercial and political enemies have relished the corporation’s current crisis. Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail have long wanted to emasculate the Beeb. They must be resisted. Today’s Sun on Sunday headline about Entwistle’s resignation (‘Bye bye Chump’) was a useful reminder of the crassness of the Murdoch press. Britain is a better place for the closure of the News of the World. By contrast, the loss of the BBC would be a tragedy. It must not happen.

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