John Humphrys vs George Entwistle: A humiliating interview, and a career was at an end
Humphrys destroyed his boss in a memorable encounter on the ‘Today’ programme, and within hours Entwistle did the honourable thing and quit
It was, George Entwistle declared on the day he became BBC Director General, “one of the best television jobs in the world, if not the best”. A consummate BBC man, even before entering the corporation 23 years earlier, the understated Yorkshireman made it clear to all from the start that he had finally reached the summit of his ambitions.
After more than two decades in Broadcasting House, however, he was not blind to the many failings of the BBC in a hostile world. "I both love the BBC and, at times, find it an immensely frustrating place," Mr Entwistle, 50, said in his application for the top job.
"My hunch is that there isn't a single bit of the BBC that, in places, can't do better."
If George Entwistle had any plans to improve the corporation, he never had the time to lay them out, let alone put them into action. Successive firestorms over sex abuse claims surrounding Jimmy Savile and the Bryn Estyn children's home raised fundamental questions about the standard of BBC journalism, and fatally undermined his credibility. The new DG spent much of his short tenure facing down MPs and journalists in an attempt to defend the BBC and his own position. But a mauling yesterday morning at the hands of one of his own employees, John Humphrys, was the last straw.
After two short months in the chair, the man who arrived talking about how the BBC could improve, last night managed to leave the corporation looking considerably worse.
"I feel so disillusioned that such a man can rise without trace to be Director General," the former culture secretary, David Mellor, said as the vultures closed in on Mr Entwistle yesterday. "He came across as so out of touch, it made me think Winnie the Pooh would have been more effective."
It was a cutting assessment of a man whose association with the corporation went back to his schooldays, when he addressed a youthful complaint about the rescheduling of Tom & Jerry – to accommodate coverage of Roy Jenkins's 1969 Budget – to "the derector" of the BBC.
Mr Entwistle told the Radio Times that his father, a lecturer, did not send the letter of complaint about the cartoon, but handed it to his son more than 40 years later, when he applied for the high-profile job of running the BBC. He said: "My father, underneath, had written Broadcasting House, London, and then failed to post it – very typical of my dad."
Yet, despite his much-professed devotion to the BBC, Mr Entwistle was a latecomer to the corporation, arriving as a broadcasting trainee in 1989 – at the third attempt – five years after graduating from Durham University. In the intervening years, he had worked as a writer and editor at Haymarket Magazines, where he is chiefly remembered for his classical music reviews and his contributions to What Hi-Fi?. It was a radical change in subject matter; Mr Entwistle swiftly moved into current affairs with Panorama and On the Record. Where once he wrote about recitals and sound systems, he now covered weightier issues including the first Gulf War and the fall of Margaret Thatcher.
Contemporaries remember the now thirtysomething Mr Entwistle as "a willing young pup", never quite displaying the charisma of more exalted colleagues on the other side of the camera. "Always keen to get involved, but always interested in management as well as pure news," one recalled. "George was popular and ambitious, but not threatening. It always looked like he wanted to get on, but he was never what you would call a natural leader."
But he did get on. In 1994, only five years after arriving at the BBC, he joined its flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight. Over the next decade, he rose from its producer to become the programme's editor, officially taking charge the day before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Critics have complained that disaster has followed Mr Entwistle ever since. Earlier this year, as director of BBC Vision, he had responsibility for the coverage of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, which attracted more than 4,500 complaints, mainly about the tone of the presentation at the River Pageant.
Yet Mr Entwistle can point to significant achievements, particularly in relation to his stewardship of a new Topical Arts Unit from 2004, where he launched BBC2's The Culture Show and executive-produced arts films. As head and commissioning editor of TV Current Affairs, he commissioned documentary series including The Conspiracy Files and Michael Cockerell's series Blair: The Inside Story and made the fateful decision to bring Panorama back to a weekday peak-time slot. In his next role, as acting controller of BBC4, Mr Entwistle was in charge of the channel during the first runs of Mad Men and Flight of the Conchords.
Yet, for a man who had filled so many roles within the BBC, his position as DG, officially confirmed in July, quickly began to look like a job too far. He was not in charge early this year when Newsnight canned a proposed piece on allegations that the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile had been a child abuser, but after ITV ran the story, Mr Entwistle's actions appeared indecisive and slow – a fact he himself conceded in his interview on the Today programme yesterday. As the corporation descended into chaos, with BBC programmes investigating each other and interviewing their own bosses, Mr Entwistle shuttled between television studios and parliamentary committees attempting to explain their actions.
The lull following a reshuffle of Newsnight management and the announcement of separate inquiries into the Savile episode turned out to be a stay of execution. After he was forced to apologise for a second Newsnight controversy after the programme falsely implicated the former treasurer of the Tory party, Lord McAlpine, in a child abuse scandal, Mr Entwistle was again left battling for his job. This time, in his second BBC interview in a few weeks – this time with Mr Humphrys, rather than a genteel board of BBC grandees – he failed miserably to impress.
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