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.
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.
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