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.

George Entwistle’s Radio 4 Today exit interview

BBC’s Chris Patten and George Entwistle: losing control. Photo: BBC

Listening to BBC director general George Entwistle’s interview with John Humphrys on Today this morning was like witnessing a car crash in slow motion. Humphrys was as amazed as anyone else that Entwistle was totally unaware that Newsnight was broadcasting a report that all but named a top Tory as a paedophile. The allegation was totally false. The interview must surely represent Entwistle’s BBC exit interview.

After Newsnight’s disastrous scrapping of its exposure of Jimmy Savile as a serial child abuser, it’s impossible to understand how this new report wasn’t seen as an obvious one to refer to the highest levels. (Entwistle is supposed to be the BBC’s editor in chief.) Yet the top man was as hopelessly out of touch as over the Savile saga.

It shows a complete failure of management. Any competent chief executive would have put the BBC on a war footing over the past six weeks. He (or she) would have insisted any sensitive issue that might escalate the BBC’s crisis must be referred to him. He’d have made sure that top executives were on top of any situation. Yet what does Entwistle do? Nothing, if the latest Newsnight own goal is any indication.

It was painful to listen to Entwistle’s pathetic excuses during today’s Humphrys interview. Why didn’t he intervene? He was giving a speech. He was out. Why didn’t he see the tweet 24 hours before Newsnight’s broadcast telling the world what it would be reporting? He only looks at Twitter occasionally and missed it. (So why didn’t the BBC PR bosses alert him?)

Entwistle once again came across as a thoroughly decent man who would have made an excellent middle ranking official. But he’s no leader. He has learned nothing from the events of the last six months. His reaction to the latest disaster? Asking for yet another inquiry. That’s not leadership. It’s desperately delaying the inevitable: his resignation.

UPDATE: George Entwistle tonight resigned as the 15th director general of the BBC after less than three months.

Here’s the transcript of the Humphrys v Entwistle Today interview.

Newsstand: another Apple failure

Apple’s Newsstand application for iPad and iPhone is a great idea. It provides automatic downloads of digital newspapers and magazines. This is a brilliant way of reading content on the go – it’s a lot easier to take the digital edition of the Sunday Times on flight or train than the hefty print version. And the Guardian iPad edition is beautiful as I blogged a year ago.

But in my experience Newsstand is very unreliable. Automatic downloads often don’t happen, leaving me without the latest edition – or frantically downloading it before leaving the house.

Newsstand nonsense

I found a new glitch today. While I watched Owen playing in the London Transport Museum, I opened today’s Sunday Times – only to find this infuriating ‘computer says no’ message. I had to log into iTunes to read content I had downloaded and opened earlier today. Luckily I had internet access – if I’d been on a plane I’d have screamed at my iPad. Can you imagine a print newspaper failing to open?

Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of Apple’s iOS software (the software that powers the iPad and iPhone) lost his job this week for the iOS 6 Maps fiasco. The Maps and Newsstand experiences suggest Apple is far too quick to release software before it has been properly tested.

Denis MacShane: yet another disgraced MP

Three years ago, Britain was scandalised by the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ appalling – and in many cases criminal – expense claims. Duck houses, moats and phantom mortgages featured heavily.

We thought it was all in the past until Labour’s Denis MacShane was forced to resign today after a parliamentary committee found he had submitted 19 false invoices which were “plainly intended to deceive” Parliament’s expenses authority.

Judging from the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and Privileges’ report, MacShane shamelessly used taxpayers’ money to fund his personal and political interests. Bizarrely the police dropped an investigation into MacShane’s deceit for lack of evidence – let’s hope they read the parliamentary report, which will provide the evidence they were incapable of finding.

By coincidence, this week I’ve been reading Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner’s book about the Telegraph’s 2009 expenses scoop, No Expenses Spared. The story of how MPs tried to keep the scandal secret is as shocking now as it was in 2009. The Telegraph deserves huge credit for the way it investigated more than a million expenses documents in a matter of weeks. My main reservation was that it focused only on Labour ministers for the first few days, giving the impression that this was a Labour scandal.

Meanwhile, here’s my blogpost from May 2009, written the evening MPs were being ripped to shreds by the BBC Question Time audience in one of the most compelling editions of that show. I pointed out that the MPs’ excuses were groundless. And here is my manifesto for a new politics in the wake of the expenses scandal.

Are you sick of bad news?

Watching the news is a grim affair. Every item is a bad news story. The past 10 days alone we’ve seen the terrible house fire in Essex that killed a mother and five children. The shocking hit and run incidents in my home town, Cardiff. The killing of a vet in North Wales. An arson attack that killed a family in Prestatyn. And the continuing revelations of Jimmy Savile’s horrifying abuse of young girls.

That’s just in Britain. Overseas, the news is even grimmer, with terrible suffering in Syria and the appalling shooting in Pakistan of a brave schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan who had spoken out in favour of girls’ education.

Back in the 1990s, BBC journalist Martyn Lewis famously criticised the media for focusing on bad news. He’s still making the case for a more balanced view of the world.

The danger is that the media prompt us to switch off (literally and figuratively) the news when it becomes too depressing. We feel helpless when we see evil and misfortune in every story.

Journalists would argue that they simply tell it how it is. A plane crash is news. A plane landing safely isn’t news (except on 22 April 2010…). Bad news sells papers, they’d argue. They’d add that they do report good news. Just look at the coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Perhaps. But the relentless stream of bad news gives a misleading impression. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian points out that the disproportionate (in Jenkins’ view) attention to issues like Jimmy Savile and the BBC result in the complete failure to understand that mistakes happen:

“Those running big organisations, in the public and private sectors, face a lethal pincer movement. On the one side is a rising tide of risk aversion, seeping into every factory, office and profession, stifling enterprise, “reassessing” risk, clogging decision. On the other is a fear of what happens should this process fail. Just as the concept of an accident has slid from legal status, so has the “honest mistake”. When Entwistle today admitted and regretted his mistake in not asking in more detail about the Savile programme, his tormenters hardly noticed. Honest mistakes do not exist, being replaced by only the most serious and probably criminal negligence, fit only for the pillory, the stocks or the gallows.”

It’s hard to see this changing any time soon. The media and politicians love demanding punishment and shaming. They’re not likely to give up this reflex.

Savile: BBC in crisis

The BBC seems to totter from crisis to crisis. But the corporation’s veteran reporter John Simpson may be right to call the Jimmy Savile scandal the BBC’s worst crisis for 50 years.

Yes, it could prove worse than 2004, when its chairman and director general resigned after the Hutton report condemned the BBC Today’s account of the government’s justification for the Iraq war. The BBC actually gained support back then as many dismissed the report as a whitewash.

Savile is – potentially – different. But there are two separate threads to the story and it’s important not to confuse them.

First, did BBC executives know about Savile’s abuses and turn a blind eye? This would be appalling (despite those saying the world was very different in the 1970s), but could be seen as a by-gone issue unless today’s BBC executives were involved.

Second, did BBC executives order Newsnight to scrap its story last year because it would embarrass the corporation, which was planning Christmas tribute shows? Did bosses, including the then head of TV George Entwistle, ignore warnings about Newsnight’s evidence against Savile?

In my view, the greatest danger to the BBC’s reputation lies in what happened over the last year, not what it did 40 years ago. We don’t yet know the facts. John Simpson may be right. It’s possible that newly promoted Entwistle could go down in history as the BBC’s shortest lasting director general.

The BBC’s enemies are enjoying its discomfort. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. But the truth may be mundane. Newsnight is not an investigative programme. Editor Peter Rippon may have got cold feet. Once he took his decision, he’s likely to have been utterly absorbed by a thousand other news stories. (Although he must have looked at the Savile tribute shows and thought back uneasily to the damning testimony of Savile’s victims in the interviews.). A serious misjudgement but understandable.

We’ll know soon if the truth is more damning.

In all the fury, we must remember two truths. The scandal is primarily about Savile and his victims. And for all its faults, the saga has shown the BBC’s strengths as well as its flaws. How many other media organisations would examine their failures in public as forensically as the BBC has this week? Panorama’s report was a triumph, as was the performance of the BBC News. Remember this when you hear politicians bashing the corporation over the coming weeks. The BBC can be infuriating, clumsy, arrogant and complacent at times. But Britain would be a far poorer country without it.

Jimmy Savile: George Entwistle and the BBC’s challenge

The Jimmy Savile scandal is breathtaking. That a celebrity should have undertaken abuse on a staggering scale without challenge is appalling.

The BBC and the NHS is at the heart of the backlash. How much did BBC bosses know about Savile’s crimes? Did they turn a blind eye? Did they cover up his actions? How did the NHS allow him open access to its wards?

The BBC’s new director general George Entwistle has endured a baptism of fire over the Savile scandal. That’s unfair in many ways – most of the alleged acts happened in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – but history shows that managing hot issues is high on the DG’s job description. Entwistle’s account of his response to Newsnight’s Savile investigation was very naive. A savvy BBC executive would have asked a few questions on being told Newsnight was investigating Savile. Newsnight wouldn’t have been looking into whether he unduly promoted the Beatles over the Rolling Stones. Entwistle should have realised it could impact on the BBC’s Christmas tributes to Savile.

It’s easy to think there are no lessons in this for today’s society. This isn’t a 1970s story. We’re even more celebrity obsessed today. While celebrities are more likely to be exposed today for wrongdoing, they also have more power and profile than in the 1970s.

Live from Machynlleth: not BBC 5 Live Drive’s finest hour

I enjoy listening to BBC Radio 5 Live on my daily commute. I like the lively presentation style of Breakfast with Nicky Campbell and Rachel Burden, and Drive with Peter Allen and Aasmah Mir. But Drive had a seriously off day today.

I switched on for the 6pm news. The show led on the distressing disappearance of five year old April Jones in Machynlleth, mid Wales. Almost every presenter and reporter (with the honourable exception of Peter Allen) mispronounced the town’s name. The most regular versions were ‘Mahynlleth’ and ‘Makunleth’. Now I accept Machynlleth isn’t the easiest name for English (or Scottish in the case of Aasmah Mir) people, but you’d have thought they’d have made an effort.

It got worse. Drive moved on to discuss Ed Milliband’s speech to Labour’s annual conference. We heard various people including Neil Kinnock telling the show what they thought of the speech. But they didn’t play a single clip of the actual speech. Not a word. Perhaps people who tuned in an hour earlier got to hear Milliband? Hardly a reason to treat the opposition leader’s most important speech of the year in such a cavalier fashion.

I hope they do better tomorrow.

The Guardian: too much Apple coverage?

iPhone 5: does it get free and easy publicity from the media?

The Guardian’s readers’ editor Chris Elliott today devoted his Open door column to respond to reader criticism that the paper has, in Elliott’s words, been,'”brainwashed” by Apple to give the company and its products excessive amounts of favourable publicity.’

Elliott makes a comparison of the paper’s coverage of Apple phones compared with the rival Android mobile phone operating system over the past 12 months:

“There were 900 references to Apple in the paper and on the website in total; 470 of those were in print. There were 340 references to Android phones, of which 30 were in print.”

Elliott’s article was balanced without reaching a verdict on the claims of Apple bias. He quotes the paper’s technology editor Charles Arthur:

“The statistics show that people read about Apple stuff. If a story involves the company, it gets huge readership. We aim to write about it fairly. If it gets a lot of coverage, that’s because what it does can move entire markets – stock markets, other companies’ shares (eg suppliers who win/lose contracts), how we use devices (so it might not have been the first company with a touchscreen phone, but it set the standard all the others followed).”

Arthur was criticised heavily by readers last month for posting a 5 star review of the iPhone 5 that didn’t mention the flaws in the new Apple Maps app that replaced Google Maps in the iOS 6 operating system that powers the new phone. Arthur reassured readers who may be concerned about switching to the Apple app: “Don’t worry – it’s very good.” Within 24 hours, his colleague Juliette Garside reported ‘significant glitches’ in Apple Maps, including the disappearance of Stratford upon Avon, new airports and relocated towns.

Charles wasn’t the only reporter to publish a glowing review that didn’t mention the maps fiasco. The Telegraph’s Shane Richmond wrote a similarly euphoric write up the same day. The challenge tech writers like Shane and Charles face is that readers and publishers demand an instant appraisal of new tech products. They don’t always get enough time to get under the skin of the latest phones and other devices. It was much the same with the last truly new iPhone model – the rumpus about the reception problems of the iPhone 4 (the predictably named ‘antennagate’) broke a couple of weeks after the launch, long after the glowing reviews had appeared.

UPDATE: Shane has pointed out in response that he wrote a parallel story the same day as his iPhone 5 review highlighting that iOS 6 isn’t as good as it could be: “Unfortunately, in the version I tested, Apple’s Maps are missing places such as railway stations and frequently misplace cafes and restaurants, often putting them streets away from their actual locations.” Charles has highlighted his piece last week asking ‘Why do some people really hate Apple?”

The cult of Apple … and Android

It can’t be easy to be a tech writer. Anything you write about Apple or Android leads to an torrent of vitriol from fans of the rival systems that is literally beyond reason. Take one comment on Chris Elliott’s article:

“For most purposes Apple products suck. If you want to do any serious professional work using a computer you do not use Apple, but instead PCs running Microsoft Windows or a version of Linux…The only people who use Apple products are those who buy the product as a fashion accessory, or because they think it is cool and rebellious not use Windows.”

It’s hard to think of any other type of consumer product that provokes this kind of religious/cult style over-reaction. Do Ford car owners condemn Vauxhall or Mercedes owners as stupid for their choice of car? Or Canon devotees about Nikon users? It seems unlikely.

My view is that Android and Apple phones are amazing devices. They offer features that we could only dream about five years ago – and are so much more user friendly than earlier smartphones. (Just try using a BlackBerry if you want to see how awful smartphones were before the iPhone.) iPhones are brilliant for people who want a simple yet powerful user experience but aren’t bothered about customising how everything works. Android is terrific for anyone who wants more flexibility – in handsets, software and customisation. You choose.

In praise of Mike Baker

Anyone wondering why a civilised society needs journalists need only look at the career of  Mike Baker, who died last week. Baker knew more about education than most, if not all, of the education secretaries and ministers he interviewed.

Baker became a familiar figure in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Thatcher and Major governments introduced the national curriculum, intensive testing of pupils and school league tables. Baker’s BBC reports chronicled the battle between the government, which claimed to be increasing standards, and the teaching profession, which protested against the resulting enormous bureaucracy and the pressure on young people and teachers.

After retiring from the BBC, Baker enjoyed a new career as a freelancer, in which he was able to assert his own views. One of his last blogposts, from June, condemned the foolishness of Michael Gove’s plans to revise O levels, reflecting Mike’s deep knowledge of the origins of that exam.

Estelle Morris, one of the few education secretaries who knew as much about education as Mike, paid tribute to him. “He was a specialist journalist and knew the area better than most politicians. I have more than once turned to his words in an effort to better understand what was happening.”

The tragedy is that the habit of reshuffling government ministers means that few ministers build up the expertise of specialist reporters and commentators like Mike Baker. We’d have a far better education system – not to mention health service and transport system – if ministers were allowed to stay in post for more than a year or two. And made policy based on evidence and common sense, not dogma. That would be the best tribute to a great journalist, Mike Baker.