Entwistle quits BBC: what next?

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2012

Another week, another day’s news headlines dominated by the media talking about itself… though this time with some legitimacy, as it’s not every day the Director-General of the BBC resigns within two months of being appointed to the post.

George Entwistle and the BBC’s Catch-22 problem

The BBC Director-General is editor-in-chief of the organisation, ultimately responsible for all content. The DG must also lead an organisation with 23,000 employees, a £4.8bn budget and multiple TV, radio and online outlets. I think it’s fair to say those are two tricky jobs to combine. What is vital then is that the man at the top (to date it always has been a man) has to create a nimble management structure and be able to delegate decisions to trusted colleagues. I think it’s fair to say those are two tricky things to get right.

George Entwistle appears to have been caught in a Catch-22 loop: rightly trying not to interfere with the editorial independence of Newsnight (which as one of its former editors he would have well understood) while simultaneously being held to account for a string of questionable editorial decisions. What lots of critics have been quick to pounce on as a “lack of curiosity” was in many ways an admirable hands-off delegation of responsibility.

It’s the done thing now to call for the head of an organisation to quit when something big goes wrong — but it does look like George Entwistle is having to carry the can for decisions he did not make in an organisation he hasn’t yet had any chance to change. He hasn’t helped himself with a series of public appearances, both in front of Parliament and John Humphreys, where he failed to convey the impression of a leader with a firm grip of events.

I know little of the internal workings of the BBC. But big organisations tend towards the hierarchical. And public sector organisations tend to be risk-averse. So my guess is the BBC is both hierarchical and risk-averse, a horrible fusion at times of crisis. In the case of Savile and Newsnight, it appears that decisions were passed on up the chain-of-command in a collective arse-covering exercise which allowed everyone, both senior and junior, to be able plausibly to disclaim any personal responsibility. When no-one is responsible, no-one is accountable — apart from the guy at the very top, as George Entwistle has found.

Media double-standards

As ever, the focus is on the BBC. That’s fair enough: it’s a broadcaster publicly funded by a compulsory levy, and that brings with it responsibilities that don’t apply to newspapers or commercial broadcasters that have to justify their existence in the market.

But it’s still stuck in my craw to see so many newspapers and journalists gleefully criticising the BBC’s shortcomings so soon after the Leveson inquiry detailed so clearly the press’s cavalier disregard for fact and feeling in its pursuit of a circulation-boosting edge.

The case of Christopher Jefferies — landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates and viciously smeared by the media — is a stark contrast to the BBC’s present mess:

And then there’s ITV, whose flagship daytime show This Morning demeaned itself on Thursday by pulling a risible stunt of confronting the Prime Minister with names of alleged ‘senior Tory paedophiles’ pulled off the internet. The only apology forthcoming so far from Philip Schofield has been for accidentally brandishing the list in a way which was visible to freeze-frame viewings, rather than for plumbing the depths of journalism. Yet I’ve not seen ITV’s chief executive, Adam Crozier, or chairman, Archie Norman, questioned yet about what they’ll do to restore standards, or what they knew and when about the decision to replace political research with three minutes of cursory Googling.


The BBC has seen crises come and go and always survived. I suspect this time will be no different. Yet it is under pressure like never before, with rival broadcasters and newspapers desperate to pounce on any indiscretion while self-righteously defending (or ignoring) their own mistakes. Its unique structure — protected from competition, independent from government, funded by a poll tax — makes this inevitable. How it responds, how it reforms itself — reducing impenetrable management hierarchies, trusting editors/creatives yet holding them accountable — will define how long that unique structure holds up.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.


New from me > Entwistle quits BBC: what next? http://t.co/zIusQnrN

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm. Reply #

New from me > Entwistle quits BBC: what next? http://t.co/31OeOGma

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm. Reply #

New from me > Entwistle quits BBC: what next? http://t.co/LJLVOPZv

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm. Reply #

Well put. RT @stephentall New from me > Entwistle quits BBC: what next? http://t.co/5C1Q4pFL

by Peter English on November 11, 2012 at 7:04 pm. Reply #

I completely agree. It is inappropriate for the Chief Executive to make every decision, or to be consulted about everything. Especially since in most organisations a CEO can’t be expected to know as much about every detail as the people doing the job This may not be the case here; but it doesn’t mean that the CEO should be managing all the decisions.

This feels like a scapegoating exercise. Especially since it’s not clear to me what has been done that’s so terrible.

It seems to me that there were serious allegations made, that an investigation was halted or not started because of concerns that it might be embarrassing to a senior member of the establishment (whether or not he was “found guilty” or not).

This is a matter of genuine public interest; and something that may not have been brought to public attention without the BBC. The BBC did not identify the individual. Ideally this should not have been done, or at least, not without due process In the world of modern communications once the information is out it is likely to leak; but the BBC was not responsible for this.

On the other related matter for which the BBC has been criticised recently – the decision not to broadcast the programme about Savile – as long as the information was passed to the proper authorities, the BBC had no duty to broadcast. So no shame there, either.

This has all the feel of a pretext to attack the BBC; not a genuine scandal (by the BBC).

by Peter English on November 11, 2012 at 9:51 pm. Reply #

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