Rudderless and reeling, the BBC looks for a new sense of direction
Entwistle's terminal crisis highlights the broadcaster's wider organisational problems
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Sunday 11 November 2012
The resignation of the head of the BBC is a story of institutional failure at the world's most famous broadcasting organisation as much as it is a personal tragedy for the Director-General.
The BBC now finds itself leaderless and adrift in a crisis that is threatening to become more damaging even than the fallout from the Hutton Inquiry in 2004.
The 54-day tenure of George Entwistle should have been characterised by gripping news stories such as the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the re-election triumph of Barack Obama. Instead, the BBC itself became the news story, for all the wrong reasons.
In accepting Mr Entwistle's resignation, Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, said the Director-General he had so recently anointed had been betrayed by "unacceptable shoddy journalism". He was pointing the finger firmly at Angus Stickler of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and his erroneous report for Newsnight on 2 November suggesting that a former senior Conservative had been involved in child abuse.
But the simplicity of Lord Patten's explanation failed to acknowledge the context of the flawed report, his own culpability, that of Mr Entwistle, or the role of the BBC's editorial procedures.
When ITV highlighted the BBC's journalistic shortcomings in failing to broadcast its own evidence of allegations of child abuse against Jimmy Savile, Mr Entwistle's initial response was to ask the head of BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie, to take a look at the background. As the uproar escalated, the BBC was obliged to stand Mr MacQuarrie down and set up two major inquiries headed by a judge, Dame Janet Smith, and the former head of Sky News Nick Pollard.
Newsnight is now in a state of limbo from which it may never return. Its editor, Peter Rippon, contributed to the sense of complacency over its failure to expose Savile with a blog post on 2 October which has since been exposed as being factually incorrect.
Mr Rippon has now been sidelined, leaving his deputy, Liz Gibbons, in charge. And in the wake of the setting-up of the two inquiries into Savile, the organisation's director of news, Helen Boaden, has recused herself from any involvement in the further reporting of that massive and evolving story – and even of other pieces of BBC journalism relating to child abuse.
So when Newsnight commissioned the Stickler story in a desperate attempt to win back its reputation after the Savile fiasco, Ms Boaden had no oversight role. Instead Ms Gibbons reported to the Radio 5 Live chief, Adrian Van Klaveren, who was standing in for Peter Horrocks, the head of Global News, who himself would have been standing in for Ms Boaden but was on a pre-booked holiday.
Despite the potential for the story to set the BBC on a war footing with the Tory party by accusing one of its grandees of child abuse, Mr Entwistle appears to have known nothing about it.
Although the story was legalled by BBC lawyers and was referred to Mr Van Klaveren, the Director-General himself – like Ms Boaden – was recused from the story and left outside the loop. He didn't even watch the controversial piece as it was broadcast.
Theoretically that left at the head of the editorial chain of command Tim Davie, who was acting Director-General on Savile-related matters, and who has now temporarily taken over as the head of the organisation. However, The Independent understands the story was not referred to him.
Meanwhile at ITV... Schofield under fire
Pressure is mounting on ITV to take action against This Morning and its presenter Phillip Schofield following his live-television ambush of David Cameron with a list of alleged "Tory paedophiles". The names were visible to the cameras and the million-plus audience, and Schofield has apologised for that – but not for the stunt itself.
He has been reported by the Tory MP Rob Wilson to the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom. But ITV's lack of action is being increasingly contrasted with the turmoil at the BBC.
The political commentator Andrew Neil asked: "What have they done about This Morning and Schofield?" A number of other journalists and political figures have asked whether the ITV presenter should still be in his job when Mr Entwistle had been forced to resign.
ITV did not comment.
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