Editorial: The Corporation's next DG should come from outside


According to the bookies, there are any number of names in the frame for the top job at the BBC. But what is clear from the scandals that put an end to George Entwistle's career – both the erroneous Newsnight broadcast about a child-abusing Tory grandee and the aborted investigation into Jimmy Savile – is that his successor must come from outside the Corporation.

For all the attention now focusing on the "lack of clarity" in the chain of command, the central problem – apparent in all BBC scandals of recent years – is that senior managers are so hung up on official channels and the notion of the Corporation's independence that they baulk at showing any initiative that might smack of interference. BBC-lifer that he was, it is no surprise that such a trait was most evident in the out-going Director-General himself.

It is astonishing that Mr Entwistle was not keeping tabs on all matters relating to Newsnight and/or child abuse, given the ructions over Savile. The toe-curling radio interview in which he admitted not being aware of the Newsnight item in advance, not being aware of the subsequent storm of online rumours (wrongly) engulfing Lord McAlpine, not being aware of the newspaper story naming the peer, and not being aware that Newsnight's only source was withdrawing his claims, left Mr Entwistle looking out of touch and out of his depth.

Were that all, his departure might, by itself, be enough; another insider Director-General, of a higher calibre, might succeed where his predecessor failed. But that is not the case. Mr Entwistle's incomprehensible ignorance of the most recent Newsnight story was neither simple incompetence, nor the curiosity failure that some imply. It came from the same source as his apparent lack of interest in Newsnight's Savile investigation, when he was the head of television. Both were part and parcel of a sense that, as the head of the organisation, he must neither side-step the chain of command nor, worse still, must he interfere in news.

The irony is that Mr Entwistle got the top job by pitching himself as the insider – able to see what must be done and also, crucially, to find the levers to make it happen. With a following wind, perhaps he might have been successful. But when hit by a storm, his hidebound, insider mentality left him incapable of responding with either the speed or radicalism needed. The same mistake must not be made again.

Nor do the implications of so brief and tempestuous a tenure end there. Recent events also make it clear that the combination of the job of Director-General with that of Editor-in-Chief does not work. The dual role is also no longer relevant. Compared with 90 years ago, news now makes up just a fraction of the BBC's business. The person who runs the organisation no longer needs a background in journalism, nor even one in television. What the BBC now needs in its Director-General is someone who knows how to manage and control a sprawling enterprise that spans everything from global sales to Sherlock. Meanwhile, the Head of News, whoever that may be, should become Editor-in-Chief.

Splitting the two functions may, in fact, make the new Director-General easier to find. Even so, it is not a decision to be rushed – for all that Tim Davie's high-profile first day as acting Director-General looked like a job application. Lord Patten, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, has said the appointment should be made in weeks rather than months. But while his haste is understandable, it is also ill-advised.

Then there is the small matter of Lord Patten himself. Recent events hardly reflect well on the Chairman. And his admission that, despite being aware of the Bryn Estyn story, he felt unable to ask questions ahead of the broadcast sounds like a worrying echo of Mr Entwistle. Even so, Lord Patten should stay. With so many senior scalps claimed by the crisis already, there must be some continuity at the top.

Continuity, but not sclerosis. Mr Entwistle's much-lambasted inability to "grip" the BBC's problems render his 54 days as Director-General emblematic of the problems in the Corporation as a whole. Only an outsider can hope to address them.

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