BBC’s George Entwistle: £450,00 reward for failure

“Thanks for resigning, George. Will £450,00 be enough?” Photo: BBC

On Saturday, George Entwistle’s resignation as the BBC’s director-general looked like the act of a decent and principled man. It doesn’t look such a principled act now we know that Entwistle will be paid £450,000 for resigning. (A year’s salary.) A classic case of being rewarded for failure.

True, it’s a lot more modest than Rebekah Brooks’ £7m payoff from News International after the phone hacking scandal. But the licence fee payers are paying for it. It’s more than he was entitled to (six months.) And it’s another gift for the BBC’s enemies at News International and the Daily Mail, who will use it as ammunition in their campaign against the compulsory BBC licence fee.

Millions of licence fee payers face tough times. They will be outraged at the way they’re being punished for George Entwistle’s incompetence. Mr Decent has turned into Mr Shameless.

It suggests that Chris Patten and George Entwistle either didn’t consider how bad this would look, or didn’t care.

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.

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.

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.

James Burke: Connections revisited

I caught a glimpse of James Burke on Mark Lawson’s BBC 2 show about Seventies TV tonight. It was pure nostalgia.

Burke was a fixture on the BBC during that dramatic decade and the late 1960s. He came to fame as a Tomorrow’s World presenter and commentator on the moon landings.

But for me his greatest hour was as the creator and presenter of Connections, a 10 part BBC series showing how technological developments are interlinked. I found it enthralling. It was a highlight of my Sundays along with the less intellectually stimulating The Big Match. (Although the contemporary success of Nottingham Forest was a surprise.)

I remember my mother’s cousin being as enthralled by the Connections book as I was when he stayed with us for my grandmother’s funeral in 1981. Another era. It’s hard to imagine a major TV channel devoting a 10-episode series to technology and science in 2012.

Why I won’t miss BBC’s Ceefax

The BBC’s Ceefax service teletext service has disappeared from our TVs after our area completed digital switchover. I can’t say I’ll miss it.

I’ve not looked at Ceefax since I went online over 15 years ago. I recognise that it was once a worthwhile innovation, giving information about news, sport and travel developments on screen at a time when we had just a handful of TV channels. But it was a frustrating system to use. The difference categories had a series of scrolling pages, and I always seem to miss the page with Cardiff City’s result – meaning I had to wait for half a dozen pages to appear before ‘my’ result reappeared.

The BBC also split Ceefax pages between BBC1 and BBC2 – I could never remember which appeared where. And in an era before hyperlinks, you had to note the page number of the story you wanted. ITV and Channel 4 had their own teletext services.

It all makes the world wide web seem even more miraculous!

Remembering the Seventies

The 1970s have had a bad press. Those 10 years have been written off as a grim decade of terrorist carnage, strikes and inflation. That’s before the critics move on to popular culture: the years that taste forgot, with flares, garish colours, Gary Glitter and the Austin Allegro.

Tonight’s BBC series The 70s is sure to prompt a debate about whether the decade has been wrongly maligned. As presenter and historian Dominic Sandbrook explains on BBC News‘ online magazine, the decade has been overshadowed by the Sixties, a period whose vibrant reputation doesn’t match the reality of that iconic era for most people in Britain.

Back in 1970, the mood was optimistic. Cadbury’s ran a television advert about the ‘supersonic seventies’ – sadly missing from YouTube – which reflected an era of technological advancement. Concorde was a symbol of that excitement, along with the moon landings that continued until 1972. (People of a certain age will remember space dust sweets, which made your tongue tingle.) Family holidays featured Benidorm rather than Bognor or Barry Island.

Yet the mood changed quickly. The evening news chronicled a descent into chaos and violence, from picket line battles at Grunwick and Saltley to bomb and bullet-scarred Northern Ireland. (Forty years on, I can still picture the BBC’s Northern Ireland reporter WD Flackes, who was on our screen every night to record the latest horrors.) British political leaders of all parties seemed to have no idea how to tackle the country’s troubles. I vividly remember my father Bob Skinner proclaiming the country was going to the dogs on reading of the latest destructive strike. (Aptly, we were on holiday in Benidorm at the time, on our first ever package holiday.)

Overseas, the Seventies saw Watergate, the Munich Olympics massacre, the end of the Vietnam war and carnage in the Middle East. Not to mention the continuing cold war.

Yet it’s too easy to write off the Seventies as a time of hopelessness. Growing up in Cardiff, I enjoyed a happy, secure childhood. My parents, like so many, had more spare cash than in the Sixties, and we got our first colour television and automatic washing machine. (A contrast to the primitive machines we had before – I even remember one with a mangle on top!) And the glorious summer of 1976 and the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977 lightened the mood during the growing economic crisis.

The decade saw positive developments in society. The Labour government outlawed race and sex discrimination, and passed an equal pay act. The moves were symbolic – it would take years for attitudes to change – but important. Britain was changing for the better in many ways.

The BBC has already examined the Seventies. Its millennium year series We Love the Seventies was a nostalgic look back at life in that maligned decade. Author Andy Beckett brilliantly told the story of those years in When the lights went out.

Finally, a decade in which Wales dominated European rugby in scintillating style has to be honoured!