Getting a grip on the lurching crisis at the BBC

georgeentwistleWatching events this weekend that make up the still-unfolding crisis at the BBC has been an experience of mixed emotions, ranging from bewilderment to despair to resignation (in two senses of that word).

Much of that surrounds the (now ex) Director-General George Entwistle, pictured, an honourable man whose short tenure in the job did little that demonstrated that BBC leadership had a firm grip on matters.

At the heart of this crisis right now are two specific investigations:

  1. A police-led criminal investigation into allegations of child sex abuse by the deceased BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile – and possibly (probably) BBC staff and others – since the 1950s that burst into public light in October following the broadcast of an investigative report by ITV’s current affairs programme Exposure. That followed a BBC editorial decision not to go ahead with its own investigative report on the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs programme.
  2. An investigation into allegations of child abuse in north Wales children’s homes in the 1970s and 1980s, ordered by the Prime Minister, following broadcast of a BBC Newsnight programme on November 2 that alleged involvement by a prominent Conservative MP from the 1980s; he wasn’t named in the programme but his identity subsequently emerged. He denies such allegations and there’s a lot of talk about legal action against the BBC.

See these two Wikipedia entries for detailed accounts of these awful events:

In the midst of this poisonous mixture has been mounting criticism and questions over the leadership of the BBC, how the editorial processes and procedures work, even the very structure and future of the organization as an independent public service broadcaster.

All of that came to a head on Saturday evening when the Director-General George Entwistle resigned in the face of insistent criticisms of his leadership and growing calls for his resignation. He’s been replaced in the interim by Tim Davie, a BBC man with a marketing background who’s due to be CEO of BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial enterprise, on December 1 – less than three weeks’ away.

What seems to have been the final straw for Entwistle was his disastrous performance in a 15-minute interview on the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs radio show Today on Saturday morning.

The interviewer was the show’s co-host John Humphrys, a veteran journalist with a reputation as one who takes no prisoners in his hand-to-hand combat style of interviewing on live radio he brings to bear at times, especially with politicians and business leaders – and it was on full display on Saturday morning.

I listened to the interview and it was a painful experience. It became clear to me, if it hadn’t already, that George Entwistle – an honourable and decent man, facts of which I have no doubt – was woefully out of his depth. Not only in participating in an interview of this type but also on the fundamental and far more critical issue of leadership and knowing what was going on – and with the latter, it became clear he didn’t seem to know much.

As I listened, I wondered how on earth the man at the top of this organization could come to such an important interview so seemingly unprepared. My thoughts focused on a specific aspect of Entwistle’s leadership behaviour, all to do with his apparent detachment from fast-moving events.

Take this segment, for instance, from the transcript of the interview, in which Humphry’s asks Entwistle when he knew about the north Wales abuse report and whether he’d seen a tweet that was posted before the programme was broadcast, which flagged up that it would be making some serious allegations:

[…] HUMPHRYS: When did you know that this film was being broadcast and when did it, when was it drawn to your attention that it was going to make extraordinarily serious allegations about a man whose identity would inevitably be uncovered now wrongly as we now know?

ENTWISTLE: The film was not drawn to my attention before transmission.

HUMPHRYS: At all? Nobody said to you at all ..

ENTWISTLE: No John but I ..

HUMPHRYS: .. at the BBC?

ENTWISTLE: .. I need to explain that there, there are an awful lot of pieces of journalism going a.., going on around the BBC which do not get referred to the Editor in Chief.

HUMPHRYS: Of course there are.

ENTWISTLE: Not everything gets referred to the Editor in Chief. Now the key is, is it referred sufficiently, sufficiently far up the chain of command and in this case I think the right referrals were made.

HUMPHRYS: But a tweet was ..

ENTWISTLE: But I, but I need, but I need, I need, of course it’s important to give Ken MacQuarrie the chance to find out exactly what happened.

HUMPHRYS: But you must have known what happened because a tweet was put out twenty four hours beforehand telling the world twelve hours beforehand, telling the world that something was going to happen on Newsnight that night that would reveal extraordinary things about child abuse and that would involve a senior Tory figure from the Thatcher years. You didn’t see that tweet?

ENTWISTLE: I didn’t see that tweet John. I now understand ..

HUMPHRYS: Why not?

ENTWISTLE: Well I check Twitter sometimes at the end of the day or I don’t check it at all.

HUMPHRYS: You have a staff, you have an enormous staff of people who are reporting into you on all sorts of things. They didn’t see this tweet that was going to set the world on fire?

ENTWISTLE: John this, this tweet I’m afraid was not, was not brought to my attention so I found out about this film after it had gone out. Now the ..

HUMPHRYS: Nobody, can I just be absolutely clear about this. Nobody said to you at any time or to anybody on your staff who would then report to you at any time “Look we’ve got this Newsnight film going out” – Newsnight should already light a few bulbs with you surely – but “.. we’ve got this film going out on Newsnight that is going to make massively serious allegations about a senior political, former senior political ..” nobody even mentioned in the context that we now understand, nobody even mentioned it?

ENTWISTLE: No.

HUMPHRYS: Isn’t that extraordinary?

ENTWISTLE: Well in the light of what’s happened here I wish this had been referred to me but it wasn’t and I have to, I run the BBC on the basis that the right people are put in the right positions to make the right decisions. Now in this case the film that was, the film was not signed off in Newsnight. Legal advice was involved. It was referred to the right places in news management and further referral upwards was, upwards was made. So in short a serous consideration was given to this. But that in my view makes it all the more important that Ken MacQuarrie gets to the bottom and finds out what happened here. […]

Extraordinary indeed. You can listen to the whole interview right here:

(If you don’t see the audio player embedded above, listen at Audioboo.)

As I listened, some questions arose in my mind. What was the role played by the communicators in the “enormous staff of people” reporting to Entwistle that Humphrys mentions? What was the counsel they were giving him? How did they help him prepare for the Today interview?

I can only speculate with the answers – none, not much, and they didn’t.

Those may be unfair comments. Yet I find it extraordinary that the leader of an organization is so inadequate-looking and -sounding whenever he speaks publicly. The answers he gave in response to Humphry’s questions show an organization structure that seems to lack any kind of communication leadership never mind organization leadership.

And a new chapter in the crisis started this morning with headlines everywhere critical of the BBC’s decision to give Entwistle a payoff of £450,000, an amount apparently double his contractual entitlement upon resignation.

What on earth is going on at the top of the BBC?

Perhaps the foundation itself – structure, organization. leadership, culture, the whole caboodle – is a shaky one and needs to be rebuilt, even from scratch.

All that’s as may be. In the meantime, someone needs to get a grip on how the BBC addresses this crisis, and very quickly, before someone (probably the government) sends in someone who can.

  • Shel Holtz and I will be discussing the BBC leadership crisis and the role of communication in this week’s episode of The Hobson and Holtz Report podcast, recording today at 5pm. If you have any thoughts on it that you’d like to see (hear) discussed in our show, let us know them.

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