Rocked again: BBC all at sea in another storm

First it was Greg Dyke. Then Peter Fincham. Now another top BBC executive has been forced to walk after a media frenzy. So why is the corporation so accident-prone? Ian Burrell investigates
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The Independent Online

Here we are again. Last year it was Peter Fincham, the head of the BBC's flagship television channel, and now it is the chief of the biggest radio network Lesley Douglas, walking the plank over their failures to prevent lapses in programming standards.

The BBC is in meltdown once more. It all seems sadly familiar.

The tone is different from 29 January, 2004, when Greg Dyke stepped down as director general in the wake of the Hutton inquiry into the Today's programme's reporting. There was a sympathy then that the corporation was being bullied by the Government. But there are also similarities: the world's most famous broadcaster in a state of disarray, its staff demoralised and its credibility called into question.

When Mark Thompson arrived as Mr Dyke's replacement in May 2004, it was supposed to be a new beginning. A man with an impeccable BBC pedigree and instinctive understanding of news, the former editor of Panorama and director of BBC Television had experience of the outside business world as a former chief executive of Channel 4 and was, conservative commentators noted approvingly, a family man with strong religious convictions.

Yet the turbulence at the BBC has been unremitting. The past 18 months in particular have seen the corporation rocked by storm after storm. Programmes that were thought almost sacred such as Children in Need, Comic Relief and Blue Peter, were found to have duped their audiences.

The Queen herself was unveiled in film to an expectant press as having stomped out of a photoshoot with Annie Leibovitz, when she had done nothing of the sort. Mr Fincham, who had presented the footage as the star billing in his new schedule, ended up quitting but only after a lengthy rearguard action by the BBC and an inquiry conducted by a former senior BBC executive, Will Wyatt.

Mr Fincham handed in his resignation and Mr Thompson –who, along with his Director of Vision Jana Bennett, had also been faced with calls to go – responded with a note which said: "It is with real sadness that I accept your decision to resign. Your decision to accept responsibility demonstrates the integrity and conviction which has characterised your leadership of BBC One."

Now Lesley Douglas has gone the same way, after an excruciating two weeks in which the number of complaints about the offending broadcast has risen from two to more than 35,000. "It is with real sadness that I accept your decision to resign," wrote Mr Thompson yesterday, perhaps with a sense of déjà vu. "Your decision to take responsibility... is an illustration of the integrity and commitment which has characterised your leadership at BBC Radio 2 and BBC 6 Music."

Were they pushed or did they jump? Mr Fincham has since made clear his departure was his own decision. He has landed on his feet as the director of television at ITV. Ms Douglas, 45, who is arguably the most talented executive in British radio and hugely admired across the music industry, will not find it difficult to secure significant employment.

But does the BBC licence fee payer benefit from these departures? Ms Douglas, like Mr Fincham, was a talent magnet. She recast a radio network that was in danger of becoming irrelevant to listeners under the age of 40 and grew its audience to more than 13 million by recruiting a fresh roster of younger, smarter presenters, while remaining faithful to her breakfast star Terry Wogan, Britain's most popular radio host.

While it is true that British broadcasting stars crave for work on the BBC, Ms Douglas was a skilled controller with a fine ear for a radio communicator, who managed her line-up with supreme interpersonal skills and loyalty. Mr Fincham, too, is sufficiently charismatic to have almost charmed the BBC's star sports presenter Adrian Chiles across the broadcasting divide earlier this year.

What we have learnt is that all the checks and balances that were supposed to have been put in place, in the wake of Hutton, in the wake of Crowngate and Pudseygate and Blue Peter's Socksgate, have failed. The BBC already has enough gates to screen every driveway in Essex. Now it has Manuelgate too.

"The events of the last two weeks happened on my watch," said Ms Douglas as she explained her departure yesterday. They also happened on Mr Thompson's watch, even though he was on holiday in Italy at the time.

The other post-Hutton "gates", also happened on the watch of a director general who was widely criticised for bungling a renegotiation of the BBC's licence fee settlement which left the corporation with a £2bn shortfall in funding. While Mr Thompson has won praise for his strong management in pushing through the programme of reforms that came with that settlement, the new BBC Trust showed in its statement yesterday that it is deeply unimpressed by the continued lapses in standards at the corporation, expressing its "dismay" over the "deplorable intrusion" into the privacy of Andrew Sachs and his family.

The director general issued a public statement in which he explained why he felt Radio 2 managers should shoulder the blame for the actions of Ross (who he suspended for 12 weeks) and Brand (who quit his show). "The ultimate editorial responsibility for BBC programmes lies with producers and editorial managers," said Mr Thompson. "The consequences of errors of judgement are therefore more serious for managers.

"Jonathan Ross has already made a comprehensive and unreserved personal apology to Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter. I believe he fully understands the seriousness of what has happened. I have made very clear to him the central importance of the clause in his contract about not bringing the BBC into disrepute. We agree that nothing like this must ever happen again and that tight discipline will be required for the future." Though a three-month ban on the star chat show host will hurt ratings at BBC1, Mr Thompson will face criticism for not taking tougher action on the highest-paid man at the BBC. As for considering his own position, the director general left the matter unsaid.