The next Director General will need a tough hide - and real support

An ability to withstand persistent and often unfair criticism is crucial - and perhaps the one quality Entwistle lacked

Share

The BBC will survive. Lord Patten will not resign. Newsnight will not disappear. Investigative journalism at the BBC will continue. Public trust in the BBC will be restored. The fact that these statements need to be made is a reminder of the serious nature of the BBC’s current crisis. We also need to remember that, like all such crises, this one will pass.

Three separate issues confront the BBC at the moment. The first and most serious is the possibility that Jimmy Savile’s sexual predations were allowed to take place unchecked within the BBC. Were there more than rumours? Were formal complaints made that were not properly investigated ? The Savile question, which is not limited to the BBC but includes the NHS and care homes, has been swamped by Newsnight during the last two weeks. Only Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry, which will take time, can establish what happened all those years ago.

This is not why George Entwistle resigned. He was caught up, the ink barely dry on his new DG’s contract, by two Newsnight programmes. The first the BBC didn’t broadcast, and now wishes it had, the second it did broadcast, and now wishes it hadn’t.

The first programme will almost certainly turn out to have been pulled for good journalistic reasons, because Peter Rippon, the editor, believed the evidence didn’t stack up. And while he was unwise to give a misleading account of that decision on his blog, it was equally unwise of George Entwistle to throw Rippon to the wolves of the Select Committee.

The disaster of the second programme, involving complete disregard of Basic Journalism 1.01, is much harder to explain and impossible to excuse. Whole rainforests have been felled to create the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, and the Corporation has armies of compliance officers and lawyers. Where were they when they were  needed? It seems likely that there was some relationship between the two Newsnight decisions, the belief that cowardice could be offset by subsequent bravery. Except that the cowardice was sensible, and the bravery foolhardy.

Entwistle seemed at the mercy of events

Neither programme was enough to bring Entwistle down. He had to resign because he had lost the confidence of his staff and of the BBC Trust after disastrous appearances before  the Select Committee and on Today programme. In both he seemed at the mercy of events. Nothing in his experience had equipped him to survive in those two Theatres of Cruelty.

The febrile atmosphere of recent weeks began with Tom Watson MP in the House of Commons speaking of “the spectre of a paedophilic Cabinet Minister abusing children,” and going on to accuse the Home Secretary of a cover-up. A week or so later Phillip Schofield tried to ambush the Prime Minister on This Morning with a list of suspects. George Monbiot, a respected Guardian journalist, revealed Lord McAlpine’s name in his blog. The Speaker’s wife, Sally Bercow, revealed the name on Twitter. The impact of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs on the normal standards of print journalism in the last three or four weeks has been wholly malign.

What should the BBC do now? The easy way of ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again is for the BBC to abandon investigative journalism. This has always been the cause of the big BBC controversies, including the Hutton Report that lost the BBC not only its Director-General but also its Chairman. Despite occasional mistakes, BBC programmes like Newsnight and Panorama have a vital role to play in a well-informed and self-critical United Kingdom. Abandoning investigative journalism or axing Newsnight would be cowardly.

The BBC needs a period of calm, if the rest of the media and its own staff can be persuaded to give it that luxury. It needs to understand the detail of what went wrong; it is unlikely that additional processes or a radical reorganisation will provide useful solutions. Human error will turn out to be the primary cause of Newsnight’s failure, against which organisation charts and Editorial Guidelines can only ever act as a limited insurance policy.

BBC programmes like Newsnight and Panorama have a vital role to play in a well-informed and self-critical United Kingdom

The events of the past three weeks have highlighted the ambiguities and flaws in the relationship between the BBC Trust and the BBC. The “clear blue water” designed by statute to separate these two distinct organisations meant that George Entwistle had no Chairman to coach him before, or accompany him to, the Select Committee. Lord Patten’s influence on Newsnight was, quite properly, circumscribed and limited until its programmes had been broadcast or shelved. The next Charter Review in 2016 needs to reflect on these lessons and adjust the structure accordingly.

Now the BBC needs a new Director-General. The Trust will know now that one crucial quality – possibly the only one Entwistle lacked – is the ability to stand up to persistent and often unfair public criticism, and to counter-attack aggressively. Two of the last three Director-Generals have departed prematurely. In Lady Bracknell’s words that looks like carelessness. The next DG needs to see out a five-year term if he or she is to restore the BBC to an even keel.

Sir Christopher Bland was Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, 1996-2001

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas