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:

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