Bringing brilliance to the Beeb

In his first interview since being appointed director general of the BBC, George Entwistle tells Ben Preston his plans to restore creativity and take on Sky

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The Independent Online

George Entwistle, the new director general of the BBC, promised yesterday to stamp out the infighting between channels and rival programmes that he believes is hampering the organisation's creativity and journalism.

Addressing the 22,000 staff for the first time, he spoke out against "the silos, internal competition, the duplication, the jockeying for position. And at its worst, the leaking, the briefing against other people and other departments – and the sheer waste of energy and money that results".

He announced a top-level shake-up with a new Management Board of 12 – replacing the previous 25-strong BBC Direction Group – and said Caroline Thomson, the BBC chief operations officer who had been on the shortlist for director general, would be leaving. Mr Entwistle told staff the changes would turn the BBC into "a more creative organisation, led and managed in a radically simplified way". He added: "Though our best is often brilliant, in some of our output we do settle for less than we should."

There was uproar in the Entwistle house when coverage of Chancellor Roy Jenkins's 1969 Budget overran. Tom and Jerry had been bumped off the schedule and six-year-old George was outraged. On behalf of his two younger brothers, he sat down to write a letter to the director general of the BBC.

Some 43 years later, when he was applying for the job of running Britain's most powerful cultural institution, George Entwistle's father, a lecturer, sent him that letter. "I had misspelt it 'derector'," he says. "My father, underneath, had written Broadcasting House, London, and then failed to post it – very typical of my dad." Sitting beneath the austere gaze of Lord Reith, the BBC's founder, in his trendy burgundy meeting room in the corporation's gleaming £1bn New Broadcasting House, George Entwistle is affable and articulate and is at his most passionate when he talks of the Beeb's enduring place in his own life and the nation's.

By the age of 12, the BBC was firing his nascent fascination for international politics and culture each evening: "I would go to my bedroom and listen to Kaleidoscope and The World Tonight. I think my parents thought it was a bit strange. But these programmes laid a foundation…"

For Entwistle, the BBC is the heartbeat of his life. "There has barely been a morning – with the exception of holidays – since I was aware of what was going on in the world, that I haven't listened to the Today programme."

Entwistle took the helm this week after the BBC's golden summer. It's still basking in the global glow of brilliant Olympic coverage, a reinvention of Shakespeare's history plays – The Hollow Crown – and critics swooning over Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End. But his mission is to ensure this is no last hurrah.

He is tasked by the man who appointed him, the chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten, to restore creativity and improve the quality of the BBC's output by 20 per cent ("Yes, that was a very precise number," he admits). He must perform that conjuring trick while cutting budgets by almost a fifth. For the record, his reward for taking on the role is a hefty salary of £450,000 – but Mark Thompson's was nearly 50 per cent more.

Entwistle, 50, is little-known outside the BBC where he has risen to the top in 23 years. For most of his time at the BBC he was a working TV journalist, fascinated by politics, international affairs and the arts, who came to edit The Culture Show and Newsnight. Then he was fast-tracked through a blizzard of executive jobs in current affairs and the arts, running BBC4, factual programmes and last year he was appointed head of television, or in the strange language of the corporation, director of BBC Vision.

Entwistle attended a private school, Silcoates, near the family home in Wakefield. But, after leaving Durham University he was rejected by two BBC graduate training schemes. He spent a lost year in dreary fill-in jobs, but it was an innovative BBC programme recruiting late-blooming talent that changed everything. Within days he was on attachment at The World Tonight, his boyhood radio obsession, covering the collapse of East Germany.

It is the lessons learnt from his experience of day-to-day news and programme-making that helped win the BBC's top job and define his mission today. "It can feel – and this has been true the whole time I have been here – that the way the organisation is run is somehow slightly dislocated from the thing the organisation is for: outstanding creative originality and outstanding journalistic quality." For a moment he sounds almost evangelical, vowing to "go to war on... every bit of the design and the structure and management and every bit of the culture that isn't optimised for that".

What of the challenges facing the BBC? The financial might of Sky, which dominates sport, now routinely poaches stars made by the BBC such as Ruth Jones, Steve Coogan and Sir David Attenborough.

Entwistle is determined that every penny of the £145.50 licence fee should be seen to be spent carefully and efficiently. "We should fight to hang on to the people we love… but we should never bankrupt ourselves to keep them because that's not what we are for. "

Jeremy Paxman noted in Radio Times this year that when empires know their time is short they start erecting monuments to themselves. He was talking about the British in New Delhi, but referring to the splendours of New Broadcasting House. For Entwistle, this grand new home for 6,000 staff is a statement of confidence in the BBC's future. A place where small boys can write to him for years to come.

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