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 expos√© 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.