George Entwistle: A good chap in the trenches who can command respect

He will find it easier to impose further budgetary restrictions than a DG without strong BBC roots

Ian Burrell
Thursday 05 July 2012 12:57
Part of George Entwistle's talent has been his ability to avoid controversy
Part of George Entwistle's talent has been his ability to avoid controversy

Such is his interest in military affairs that the man named yesterday as Director-General of the BBC was once fondly referred to by colleagues as "General Sir George" and his "address" listed in an internal directory as "The Old Barracks".

But the irony of that title is that George Entwistle has long been regarded by long-serving BBC employees as a good chap to have alongside you in the trenches, rather than someone born to be giving out the orders.

The retiring Director-General, Mark Thompson, who has championed Entwistle and been anxious to endorse him as his successor, seemed to go out of his way to counter that view as he praised the new appointee as "an outstanding leader" and someone who has recently "shown his calibre as a leader".

In fact, Entwistle's most high-profile leadership activity of late has been to oversee the widely criticised BBC coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, although as Director of BBC Vision he can hardly be held responsible for some of the crass editorial errors which occurred on the day and drew public ire. Other than that, he has been a relatively low-key figure, slowly but surely climbing the rungs of the BBC for the past 23 years after joining the organisation as a trainee. Married with two children, he celebrates his 50th birthday on Sunday.

Although he was quickly among the front-runners for the top job when Thompson announced he was stepping down in April, Entwistle has until recently been a relatively anonymous BBC executive. The likes of former Deputy Director-General Mark Byford, former Director of Vision Jana Bennett, creative chief Alan Yentob and the smooth former Controller of BBC1 Peter Fincham all once seemed closer to the throne.

Unlike Fincham, who took the rap for the "Queengate" fakery scandal, or Byford, who enraged colleagues over his salary arrangements, the General has kept out of the line of fire and maintained the respect of the troops. Compared to the past pay of some BBC bosses, his £270,000 salary is relatively modest.

Entwistle's record as a programme maker made him the BBC journalists' DG of choice among the final candidates. Part of his talent has been his ability to avoid controversy. At Newsnight, where he was a long-standing deputy editor and then editor, he was admired for his ability to fix and tidy stories others had gathered, ensuring they bore the hallmark of the BBC and did not challenge editorial guidelines. The programme won five Royal Television Society awards under his editorship, but Entwistle is not regarded as a risk-taker, nor someone with remarkable creative flair.

Under Thompson's tutelage, he has become a key member of the BBC's strategic team, ensuring he is well placed to confront the problems the organisation faces globally and internally. He is enthusiastic about the potential of new technologies and will find it easier to impose further budgetary restraints than a DG without his strong roots in the BBC.

Physically, Entwistle rather resembles not so much a Custer or a Washington as another famous George, who shares his habit of wearing suits; George Passmore from the art duo Gilbert & George. Entwistle has his artistic leanings, too, and was the launch editor of BBC2's The Culture Show.

During his time at BBC Knowledge, he showed his appreciation of the arts by commissioning a season on opera across three BBC networks. He also headed up coverage of the Papal visit in 2010. In the same year, the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain gave him a chance to indulge his tastes in military matters with notable programmes on three television channels.

And now, after a skilfully executed leadership campaign, Director-General George Entwistle can take command of the BBC.

George Entwistle: Career highs and lows


A graduate of philosophy and politics at Durham University, he joins BBC as a trainee. He then becomes an assistant producer on Panorama, working on coverage of the first Gulf War and the fall of Margaret Thatcher.


Appointed Editor of Newsnight, starting work in his new role the day before 9/11. The programme won awards but was sucked into the Hutton Inquiry over reports on weapons inspector David Kelly.


Launches The Culture Show with Verity Sharp on BBC2. Accused of dumbing down arts coverage but it has run for eight years. He executive produced arts films for BBC4 and was chair of a workgroup as part of Mark Thompson's creative future strategy review.


Head of Current Affairs Takes Panorama back into primetime, with Jeremy Vine as presenter. He also commissions current affairs documentary series for BBC2 including Blair: The Inside Story.


Controller of Knowledge Commissioning producing more than 1,600 hours of television output a year. He expands the BBC's online footprint but is embarrassed by a leaked document ranking BBC presenters and describing Michael Palin and Delia Smith as having "limited appeal".


Director of BBC Vision on salary of £270,000 a year. He oversees shows ranging from the reality show The Voice to the drama Birdsong. Faces criticism over the BBC's coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, which is described as "mind-numbingly tedious" by BBC presenter Stephen Fry, and "lamentable" by former BBC news executive Kevin Marsh.

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