Entwistle’s exit 

14 November 2012 tbs.pm/1309

Last Friday’s edition of Newsnight must rank as one of the most surreal programmes ever broadcast by the BBC, namely Newsnight questioning the BBC about its own future after another mishap made by, erm, Newsnight. And it was this that ultimately set the scene for what was to follow; something that could have come from the pages of a modern Shakespearian tragedy but caused by real life events.

Therefore the resignation of the BBC’s Director-General George Entwistle the very next day after only 54 days in the job is not a huge surprise given how close he was at the time to the Newsnight scandal involving a failure to run child abuse allegations relating to Jimmy Savile, even if Entwistle could have stayed until preliminary enquiries into the aborted Newsnight investigation had concluded. (Or perhaps more tellingly, Entwistle might have known where such an inquiry would lead and he may be directly implicated as a consequence.)

This was soon followed by the resignation of the head of BBC News, Helen Boaden along with her deputy, Stephen Mitchell. They were directly implicated with Newsnight’s failure to broadcast the Savile allegations in 2011, and even if they weren’t specifically involved with the 2 November 2012 edition of Newsnight that wrongly accused Lord McAlpine by association, they perhaps should have detected issues in relation to Newsnight’s editorial structure and taken further corrective action beforehand.

Thankfully it only took ten days for the MacQuarrie report into the 2 November 2012 edition of Newsnight to be published; its findings are concise but brutally honest, with the last sentence being the most significant: “There was a different understanding by the key parties about where the responsibility lay for the final editorial sign off for the story on the day”.

You can sense the urgency the BBC has attached to the key issue of maintaining and building trust and integrity after two significant instances of journalistic and/or management failure. The integrity of the BBC happens to be its key asset, therefore anything that affects such matters is naturally treated with the utmost importance. Because if the BBC lacks integrity then it has effectively let down all of its licence fee-payers in the process, and the BBC heavily relies on the TV licence fee as its main source of funding.

Here’s a summary of what has happened so far in relation to Newsnight. Firstly there was Newsnight dropping an investigation in December 2011 that took place in relation to child abuse allegations made against Jimmy Savile, allegedly because it conflicted with forthcoming tributes to the (then) recently-deceased presenter.

The head of BBC Vision at the time unfortunately happened to be George Entwistle who was going to be appointed Director-General of the BBC a year later, but he appeared at the time to do the right thing by not asking the essentially autonomous BBC News division questions as to the nature and extent of its planned Savile investigation, despite various other politicians and journalists claiming that he should have otherwise shown an interest. (It’s too easy when given hindsight to realise the importance of past events.)

BBC News is supposed to be isolated from upper BBC management in order to prevent accusations of undue influence for logical reasons that may not be fully appreciated by certain outsiders, but unfortunately there are (thankfully) extremely rare occasions when journalists may be investigating someone who worked at the BBC that may impact on other non-news items in the schedule, with this story happening to be one of them.

If anything, the supposed independence of BBC News should place greater pressure on its staff to clearly communicate potential conflicts of interest – in this case, evidence relating to the misconduct of Jimmy Savile – to management elsewhere within the corporation, even if management choose to downgrade or disregard such information based on other factors. And hardly anyone could have ever predicted the consequential impact of what was to follow.

Peter Rippon, the chief Newsnight editor at the time, later claimed that the Savile child abuse story wasn’t at a very advanced stage when it had been dropped for editorial reasons based on continuing lack of evidence, but various interviews with Savile victims had already been recorded and edited, with the project supposedly being at an advanced stage before being mysteriously dropped to the annoyance of several journalists.

Savile had been essentially untouchable during his lifetime due to the threat of libel writs and a relative lack of circumstantial evidence combined with previous failures to prosecute him, so any lack of enthusiasm for trashing the reputation of a “well-loved celebrity” could perhaps be understandable at that point.

However, Mark Williams-Thomas, an ex-police officer who had been involved in the Savile for Newsnight subsequently approached ITV with the same story nearly a year after the Newsnight investigation was abandoned, who then promptly went public with the allegations made against Savile on 3 October 2012 in a late night ‘Exposure’ documentary, causing all hell to break loose afterwards with a torrent of new allegations, cover-ups and scandal emerging from the woodwork.

Obviously more research had been done on the Savile story during the intervening period but this still left a very awkward situation for the BBC that won’t be properly accounted for until the outcome of numerous investigations have been concluded.

It should also be noted at this stage that various newspapers had previously been offered the same story, and all of them had refused to publish the allegations; this is despite certain newspapers supposedly having additional evidence against Savile hidden away in their archives, with their current editors perhaps being unaware at the time of a ticking bomb lying in wait.

Suddenly Savile had been converted overnight from a generally-loveable if somewhat eccentric radio and TV presenter into Public Enemy Number 1, perhaps inevitably causing BBC management to go into damage limitation mode, effectively banning Savile from appearing on anything that isn’t news-related such as BBC Four’s reruns of Top of the Pops. (Of course that hasn’t stopped rival broadcasters trawling YouTube for all the clips they can lay their hands on.)

Such is the paranoia surrounding Savile that even a forthcoming dramatisation of the history of Doctor Who being produced for the show’s 50th anniversary has supposedly had any references to changing rooms removed from its script, at least according to Private Eye magazine.

On 21 October, Newsnight even had the ultimate ignominy of having an edition of Panorama investigating the BBC’s own failings in relation to the Savile scandal scheduled right opposite it on BBC One, with Panorama getting 5.1 million viewers and a 38% audience share from 10.35pm. Perhaps the BBC were trying to prove a point in relation to the independence of its various news and current affairs teams, but instead could conceivably have caused an impression of a general lack of coordination and “joined-up thinking” at the BBC; something that will come back to haunt BBC management a few days later.

At this stage you might probably have thought that Newsnight in particular would have been ultra-careful with its handling of child abuse allegations, but another scandal was to prove the undoing of such an assertion.

The second Newsnight incident was based around an accusation made by one of the victims of a North Wales child abuse scandal currently undergoing reassessment as a byproduct of the Savile investigations. Basically speaking, “a prominent Tory politician of the Thatcher era” had been accused of being one of the abusers, which promptly triggered a new round of rumours as to the identity of this particular person.

On Friday 2 November, Newsnight chose to broadcast a story that happened to contain this very accusation without actually checking with the victim (Steve Messham) to see if his side of the story could be correctly verified, which would have been easily done by showing Messham a photograph of the accused. And although Newsnight didn’t actually name the accused in its report – ironically the quoted reason why Messham was not shown a photograph – it was still obvious by association that they were referring to this person by virtue of basing part of their story round the allegation.

Unfortunately it turned out that Messham had wrongly accused Lord Alistair McAlpine of being one of the abusers, and McAlpine was forced into making a public statement on 9 November due to the intense pressure created by rumours circulating via Twitter and other means. McAlpine was able to categorically prove that he wasn’t the person in question by virtue of saying that he had only visited Wrexham (the town where the alleged incidents took place) once. Such a testimony would be easy to corroborate based on the fact that multiple witnesses would be available, hence lying would not be an option in this case.

Therefore Messham’s claim was based on a case of mistaken identity, and was also founded on an old rumour that has now been comprehensively debunked, but we should always remember that the person(s) actually responsible for all of this still need to be brought to justice and given a fair trial. (This mistake may cause Messham to be unfairly treated as an unreliable witness but that’s a separate issue entirely.)

Why Messham actually thought McAlpine was involved in the first place is perhaps a matter for further enquiries, especially as this isn’t the only instance of mistaken identity related to child sex abuse allegations that has taken place so far. So we ended up with a swift retraction from Messham followed by legal threats from McAlpine’s lawyers – their effectiveness is yet to be determined given the fact that McAlpine’s reputation has now been fully restored – and Newsnight’s credibility left in tatters as a consequence.

To put Newsnight’s misfortune into some form of context, that particular edition of Newsnight was “the result of a collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), an organisation based at City University which works with media organisations on investigative stories”, and was also produced minus its regular Editor (who had stepped aside in relation to the Savile scandal) as well as one of the Deputy Editors having left the organisation as well.

(Iain Overton, the head of the BIJ at the time, also stepped down from his position as well.)

Therefore there was not only a significant risk of an understaffed Newsnight office not being able to correctly handle a highly sensitive and controversial subject with its depleted resources, but also a potential for compliance issues relating to an outside entity (the BIJ) if for whatever reason there were problems with the investigation that related to this entity. For this reason alone, management must take much of the blame for allowing this state of affairs to exist on and off BBC premises.

And by definition, and especially given the topical and political sensitivity of the subject matter, extra attention should have been devoted to getting the facts right on this occasion, with additional intervention provided by other BBC News staff in order to support their colleagues’ efforts. Again this highlights a perceptible lack of communication and collaboration within the confines of BBC News.

Morale within the Newsnight editorial team must have been extremely low at this point – especially being on the very day that its investigative activities had been suspended – so the 9 November edition of Newsnight would most likely have been incredibly difficult to put together under the circumstances, particularly given the loss of long-standing staff. Still, in lieu of Newsnight not being cancelled altogether, the show must go on somehow in the face of building adversity.

Stand-in presenter Eddie Mair managed to deal with a fraught situation extremely competently, all things considered, even managing to sign off that night’s edition with a Paxman-style quip: “That’s all for tonight. Newsnight will be back on Monday … probably…”, even if rival news presenters had mixed reactions to this slightly flippant treatment of a crisis situation.

Alastair Stewart tweeted: “Sorry but that sign off on #newsnight trivialised a serious crisis for a serious show from a serious broadcaster. Current affairs not LE.”, but in my view that observation may have misjudged the tone of relationship that now existed between Newsnight and the rest of BBC News including the BBC’s management team, namely that Newsnight was now at the complete mercy of outside forces hence no longer able to guarantee its independence.

By way of contrast, Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy got close to the heart of the matter with this comment on Twitter: “#newsnight is one of most important progs on british media with some of best talent. It must not be allowed to spiral. Somebody take charge”. These comments on Twitter and elsewhere must have been the final nail in the coffin for George Entwistle’s career as Director-General, leading to his resignation less than 24 hours after this particular edition of Newsnight was broadcast.

There were essentially two problems relating to George Entwistle’s appointment as Director-General; the first and most significant problem was Entwistle being too close to the heart of the first of the Newsnight scandals as head of BBC Vision, though in an ideal world Entwistle wouldn’t have resigned as Director-General until all enquiries had been completed. Perhaps if he had offered to step down temporarily whilst initial investigations took place then he might have been out of the line of fire for the second Newsnight blunder.

Perhaps the second problem could be considered to be a surprising one, especially when considered in isolation: Entwistle was essentially too honest when dealing with politicians. He told members of a select committee that he had no idea when those same ministers just wanted to hear answers that satisfied them, whether actually ‘correct’ or otherwise from the BBC’s perspective.

Entwistle had consciously decided not to discuss certain issues with specific members of BBC staff in order to avoid appearing to influence them or to avoid unduly influencing the outcome of external investigations into Newsnight and their editorial failings related to the Savile affair, but that’s not what these ministers wanted to hear – they still wanted answers not excuses, even if the excuses were valid ones at that point.

The relationship between the BBC and politicians is by its very nature complex and contrived, and it has been argued that the balance has tilted too much towards government in the aftermath of two fraught licence fee settlements within a relatively short space of time. Politicians frequently want to influence the corporation to their own ends, whether it’s ensuring that they get favourable air time or that their “friends in the commercial sector” aren’t unduly affected by BBC products and services.

On top of this there are rival media outlets (television, radio, newspapers, etc.) who may dislike the BBC for various reasons along with tabloid newspapers looking to exact revenge on something or someone as a result of the ongoing Leveson inquiry into their (often illegal) past activities combined with a threat of statutory regulation; the Savile scandal and its resulting fallout was exactly the sort of stick they were looking for to beat the BBC with, even if it is unfair to judge past events using today’s moral and ethical standards.

Also it’s all well and good saying that if Entwistle had been as assertive as Greg Dyke then this crisis wouldn’t be as great as it has now become, but Dyke himself was unseated by a scandal of similar magnitude even if the Gilligan/Iraq affair directly implicated (the then current) government policy to a greater extent.

At the end of the day, it all seems to come down to the fact that Entwistle wasn’t exactly a “hands-on” style of leader, choosing to leave others to do their own thing even when it rapidly became apparent that certain journalists still needed to be supervised. It may be unfair that Entwistle essentially carried the can for management failings that existed within such a large organisation, but Entwistle was the public face of the BBC that was too close to a scandal and possibly showed ignorance of how that management structure had let the corporation down.

So what happens next? I had previously considered Tim Davie to be a potential candidate for Director-General but he was let down somewhat by being at the centre of the 6Music scandal. Even if Davie wasn’t entirely to blame for what nearly happened to 6Music, he would have been an advisor in relation to the BBC’s future radio strategy therefore directly implicated with such a (bad) decision. However I have also seen Davie deliver a presentation and he was remarkably impressive and self-assured in doing so; the BBC certainly needs a top-notch communicator more than anything else at a time of crisis.

Tim Davie also has the benefit of having had experience outside of the corporation, which should come in very handy when dealing with the BBC’s critics as well as perhaps being less fazed with the prospect of cutting back management compared to anyone who has exclusively worked in-house. And don’t forget that the last temporary Director-General appointed by the BBC was none other than Mark Thompson, so Davie might be around for some time yet if he proves his worth; certainly there should also be less pressure on Davie in the very short term as he’s openly identified as being in an ‘acting’ role.

But what exactly is the problem with the BBC currently, given that Entwistle’s only real ‘crime’ in retrospect was being too close to the Newsnight disaster zone?

Journalistic integrity relies on talented professionals being allowed to do in-depth research into potential news stories without interference even when there’s relatively little in the way of substantial evidence; we’ve openly seen the effects of one investigation prematurely abandoned (the Savile child abuse scandal), and another that wasn’t properly researched (a false allegation discredited years ago).

Research integrity heavily relies on news and current affairs editors having enough resources to perform their job properly, and it cannot be a coincidence that the BBC’s news department has recently suffered heavy cutbacks both in terms of financial resources and manpower. Good journalism doesn’t come cheap and requires the freedom to commit to long-term background research which may end up yielding next to nothing.

Therefore it was no surprise whatsoever that the MacQuarrie report revealed an under-strength Newsnight office unable to properly function under the circumstances, leading to a catastrophic loss of integrity as a consequence. It has been reported that BBC News has been running on a fiscal knife edge over the past few months, therefore all of this could possibly be the first serious manifestation of damage caused directly or indirectly by financial constraints. You cannot measure integrity using a spreadsheet or guarantee the same whilst drastically lowering headcount.

Until the BBC’s current management team fully appreciates the damage that such cutbacks can and will have on news and current affairs integrity then the position of Director-General runs a real risk of turning into a revolving door as the BBC stumbles from one crisis to another, which will inevitably lead to the corporation being broken up and/or privatised as a consequence. The danger is evidently clear to see here.

Thankfully, a certain Jeremy Paxman had ridden to the rescue by saying: “The real problem here is the BBC’s decision, in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, to play safe by appointing biddable people. They then compounded the problem by enforcing a series of cuts on programme budgets, while bloating the management. That is how you arrive at the current mess on Newsnight. I very much doubt the problem is unique to that programme.”

What is highly significant about Paxman’s comments is that Lord Patten has publicly agreed with much of what Paxman has said, which by definition means that the next Director-General will certainly have to do something along similar lines if he (or, possibly, she) is to stay in the job more than a few months. Mark Thompson had previously removed two layers of management as part of his DQF plan, but that action has now proved to be woefully inadequate given the potential scale of the problem.

But why didn’t Lord Patten identify this problem much sooner when Thompson was initially proposing his so-called “Delivering Quality First” initiative? Nobody at the time seemed to be saying “Hang on, I don’t think that this level of cutback will work in terms of maintaining journalistic integrity”, or were they giving Thompson the benefit of the doubt presumably based on an assumption that DQF had been thoroughly researched and discussed within the BBC itself?

(One particularly woeful BBC Strategy Review document published in 2010, namely the one condemning 6Music for closure which seemed to misunderstand its remit amongst several other failings, combined with a succession of embarrassing climbdowns should have set major alarm bells ringing within the BBC Trust, but the alarm must have somehow been disconnected from its power supply.)

For the time being Lord Patten is keeping his job at the Trust despite also being closely associated with recent events as well as not sacking Mark Thompson when he perhaps should have done, but as always he could be on borrowed time if the next DG also screws up due to the Thompson legacy not being properly addressed.

It appears that parts of the BBC’s existing management structure theoretically could still act like quicksand when it comes to vital information (such as a former presenter being investigated for abuse allegations) being filtered up the chain of command, and internal divisions may still conspire to hamper the sideways flow of information between departments. The obvious solution from an outside perspective would be to make further management cutbacks, diverting any money saved into news and current affairs to enforce its integrity.

We should still be careful at this point to ensure that the answer to the problem doesn’t consist of throwing more bureaucracy and so-called compliance checking into the works of investigative journalism. This kind of ‘solution’ may be a tempting option post-Sachsgate, but look what effect additional checks have had on comedy, namely causing independent producers to run into the arms of Sky (Spy, Stella, Trollied, etc.) as a consequence, and not just because of the size of Sky’s chequebook.

As for Entwistle’s somewhat controversial £450,000 payoff for resigning, the BBC ought to further stress this as being a reward for 23 years’ worth of service as opposed to 54 days of being laughed at by ministers for not having the excuses they really wanted to hear from him. Contract issues aside, again this is down to a lack of communication; an art form which you would have thought the BBC had perfected after 90 years.

If possible to do so, Entwistle’s payoff might have been better ‘packaged’ from a PR perspective by being split into two chunks, with the second payable after six months on condition of “satisfactory assistance into enquiries” (or whatever), thereby lowering the headline figure (namely, the one that gets sent out to the tabloid press).

So has this crisis of confidence permanently dented the BBC? Of course most of the fury being directed towards the BBC from rival media outlets will soon subside as long as there are no new mishaps within Broadcasting House, though the current fragility of BBC News will naturally make it a point of weakness until all outstanding issues have been properly addressed. Therefore, barring any new abuse scandals emerging from the Savile fallout that directly implicate currently-serving BBC staff, there shouldn’t be anything too much to worry about for the time being.

Indeed, my belief is that this crisis could actually a major blessing in disguise for the BBC as it celebrates its 90th birthday, because the collective Newsnight fallout will force the Trust and management within the corporation to directly address key weaknesses within news and current affairs indirectly created by Thompson’s DQF strategy. Blaming specific faults on individuals’ mistakes will not be an option this time round as might have been the case with relatively recent mishaps such as ‘Crowngate’ under the watch of Peter Fincham.

On this Monday’s Newsnight it was essentially left to Alan Yentob to defend the BBC’s reputation; he actually did a highly commendable job of doing such a thing, but in an ideal world it ought have been Tim Davie or Lord Patten instead on-screen, answering the corporation’s critics. All eyes will be on the next Director-General in the hope that they will correctly identify the source of the problem, communicate the problem clearly with the bold message “We’re on top of the situation”, and prescribe the correct fixes – the future of the 90 year-old BBC will certainly depend on it.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Saturday 13 July 2024