BBC DGs had an absolute responsibility to know about the detail of Newsnight investigations

24 Oct 2012  |  Raymond Snoddy 

Following George Entwistle's appearance at the culture select committtee, Raymond Snoddy continues to explore the ramifications for the BBC and its executives...

To have one BBC director-general totally lacking in curiosity is a misfortune. To have two in succession really does look like carelessness.

The former director-general of the BBC Mark Thompson - a journalist who once edited Panorama - was told about a Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile and asked nothing and claims to have known nothing - although the latter point is in dispute.

George Entwistle, the current director-general, journalist and former editor of Newsnight was told there was a Savile investigation and says he did not ask and claims with rather more credibility that he knew nothing.

Among all the conflicting claims, counterclaims, leaked emails and letters to and from the Culture Department we have to hang on the core of what happened following the death of Saville. It is so important that it should be up in neon lights.

BBC Television broadcast two toe-curlingly embarrassing tributes to Savile while its own journalists and probably some senior news executives, knew of the emerging scandal of Savile the sexual predator on under-age women.

The first DG was actually in charge of the Corporation when the tributes went out and the current DG was head of BBC Vision and the man responsible for putting them in the schedule and had been warned that the Christmas schedule might have to change.

All the rest is detail, though there are many fascinating subplots for continuing exploration.

We do however, probably have to exonerate Entwistle on one of the two main allegations against him. As he said while making his two-hour suicide video before the culture select committee, he cannot reasonably be accused at the same time of interfering too much to get Newsnight to pull the investigation and at the same time interfering too little by not knowing the content of the inquiry.

Fair enough George. You didn't interfere. If anyone encouraged the Newsnight editor to drop the inquiry - an insane editorial decision - it was someone else. And there are candidates.

Unfortunately for Entwistle not interfering enough is just as serious as interfering too much on this occasion. Or, as John Whittingdale who chairs the select committee put it, Entwistle had shown "an extraordinary lack of curiosity."

He hadn't asked what the investigation was about when informed by director of news Helen Boaden at an awards ceremony, ironically for women in journalism, in December. "This was a busy lunch," explained George in a remark that sounds like a Private Eye parody.

The case for the defence is that he didn't want to interfere in any way with a news programme. It was the appropriate BBC way. Steve Hewlett had a neat phrase for it. They were "prisoners of process."

Unfortunately that argument really won't do. Even at the reduced salary of £450,000, Entwistle and Thompson before him, had an absolute responsibility to know about things that could totally undermine the BBC and trust in its journalism.

Knowing what the basic subject matter of an investigation cannot possibly be construed as applying pressure. Not knowing, when you could and should have known, is simply no excuse as many have found out in more judicial settings.

As for Rippon it looks as if he is measured for the role of fall guy - after all once all the inquiries are complete there will have to be some resignations. If he really did it all himself his position is untenable but there have been email hints about chains of command. Again it is the BBC way.

His immediate boss is Stephen Mitchell, deputy director of news and then Mitchell's boss Ms Boaden. We have heard from neither but we were told at the select committee that Ms Boaden told Rippon that "just because Jimmy Savile was dead, it didn't mean that there could be any skimping in journalistic standards and that the usual BBC standards would apply."

Is that the smoking gun at last - the pressure related through Rippon that effectively meant the investigation was dropped, never to be revived - until ITV did it?

At a superficial glance the comment seems reasonable. Stand by BBC standards etc. But what exactly are the standards for the evil dead? BBC standards of fairness and impartiality? Don't go ahead unless you can get an interview with Jimmy?

The Newsnight journalists only took up the investigation because the powerful Savile was dead and couldn't sue and maybe the powerless voices of women from troubled backgrounds might be believed at last. The journalists have said the investigation was effectively killed off when impossible journalistic demands were placed on them.

The BBC does these things well and with great subtlety. No-one in the labyrinthine hierarchy would ever dream of issuing an instruction in such circumstances because it might come back to bite them.

There will be more leaked emails to come and more embarrassment for the BBC and the final judgements must await the verdict of the inquiries now under way. Until then it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions and to try to form hypotheses on matters of considerable public importance.

One question that has to be asked surrounds the current position of George Entwistle. None of us can do anything about what we look and sound like but it is unfortunate if you want to be director-general of the BBC when you look and sound like a vicar on a sabbatical, who has somehow strayed into the top job in British broadcasting by accident.

Life is not fair for top politicians or top broadcasting executives but then they know that when they put themselves forward for positions of power and prominence. The worst thing that can happen to such people is that they become figures of ridicule. As a result their authority and effectiveness simply drains away.

It's happening now to George Entwistle even though he has never called policemen plebs and morons.

Last week it was possible to say as a throw away line, almost a joke, that maybe the first woman director-general of the BBC will come rather sooner than expected. It's come even closer but now there is only one candidate left standing rather than two - Caroline Thomson the BBC's former chief operating officer.

Monday, 24 October 2012, 15:00 GMT

I listened and watched the whole select committee interview and these are the conclusions I came to:

1. George Entwistle is a BBC 'Lifer'; someone who joined the corporation at a young age and rather like the Civil Service, rose to the top by a combination of dead man's shoes and by sticking to the BBC's version of 'staff regulations' i.e. by never doing anything out of step (or original).

Unlike in many commercial companies, such as advertising where as a young man the only way to go up is often to move out and thus experience how other companies work, Mr Entwistle has never experienced anything but the hierarchical structure of the BBC. Therefore, when he emerged at the top of the pile, it was the natural thing for him to only question his reporting directors and never (even in the heat of the current crisis) to actually get personally involved with the nitty-gritty of the investigation.

I don't blame him for this as he, genuinely, has never known anything different which was probably why he looked so perplexed at the increasingly aggressive questions coming from the MPs.

2. The only solution, for the BBC in its entirety, is to bring in a wholesale change at the top and in its second tier of management to shake up what is increasingly looking like the ancient 'auntie' it is so often called. My guess is that the actual business of churning out programmes would go on without a break in its corporate stride but the mid to long term result would be a fresh, vibrant and more relevant national broadcasting corporation more able to survive in the 21st century. So, Mr Entwistle will have to go - along with a great number of other faceless men and women - and the replacements must have commercial management experience of the highest order and I would suggest, not in broadcast or even in media at all. When Reith was made DG he famously said he knew nothing about broadcasting but look what a success he made during his tenure.

3. My final thought from watching the select committee interview was what a shower of self-satisfied and grandstanding people the committee are. They should be reminded that their role is of law creators not law enforcers. If I were George Entwistle, I would have responded pretty sharply to some of the self-satisfied and pompous questions coming from the other side of the table. Perhaps the wind of change shouldn't stop at the Beeb?

Stuart McArdell
Thompson McArdell Associated Ltd
Monday, 24 October 2012, 15:50 GMT

It will be interesting to see what happens if/when Peter Rippon gets called before the committee. If he credibly refutes Entwistle's placing of all the blame on him, someone higher up the BBC will have to go - who? If Rippon accepts the blame and leaves the BBC (as surely he must), there will be close scrutiny of his severance package - to look for any indication that the value of the payoff reflects a role as the 'fall guy' in the affair.

Roger Gane
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