I have resisted the temptation to comment on the current debacle at the BBC for two reasons. I have always had considerable respect for the organisation but also because I have an intense dislike of feeding frenzies and comment in the media over the past month or so has increasingly resembled sharks circling a fatally wounded seal. George Entwistle is undoubtedly the most unfortunate media mogul I can remember. With a long and distinguished record with the BBC, his appointment as Director-General was almost universally welcomed and yet, after 54 or 55 days in post, having been hit not by one but two perfect media storms, he took the honourable course and fell on his own sword. This morning's ‘stepping aside’ by Helen Boaden and her deputy—I suspect others will follow—demonstrates that the crisis in the BBC (and it is a crisis) is one of bloated, largely unaccountable management rather than poor journalism (though this was also the case with the North Wales child abuse issue).
The Director-General would probably have survived the decision not to air the Jimmy Savile programme last year on Newsnight. His defence of the decision before the House of Commons Media Select Committee was hardly his finest hour—his answers were weak and often evasive and appeared to rely on the somewhat worn formula that he did not really know about the proposed programme—but he did act fairly promptly and set up an inquiry to ascertain the rationale behind the decision not to air. The media has juxtaposed this decision with the broadcasting of fulsome tribute programmes on Savile over Christmas 2011: it would not have been possible to broadcast both and the Newsnight programme would have meant changes to the Christmas schedule. By juxtaposing the two, it becomes easy for critics to suggest, largely without any evidence to back it up, that the Newsnight programme was sacrificed because of the tributes. I’ve always thought this was an incredibly weak argument as the BBC changes its schedules with relative ease on other occasions. That Newsnight decided not to broadcast its findings may have been a poor editorial position—but perhaps poor only in retrospect.
The North Wales care home programme is another matter. After the Savile controversy, was this a case of getting a hard-hitting programme on child abuse out before the opposition? One of the first things prospective journalists are told is ‘check your sources’ and yet this is what apparently experienced journalists and editors abjectly failed to do. A simple phone call to the ‘leading Tory minister of the Thatcher era’ or showing his photograph to the witness would have simply settled the matter and yet for some unaccountable reason no one thought to do this. Perhaps they thought that by not naming him, there would be no problem but even the most green journalist would have realised that this would lead to a rabid and rapid response from the social network media. It was his flaccid response on the Today programme on Saturday to this that led to Entwistle’s resignation twelve hours later.
It is important, I think, to see the decision not to broadcast the Savile investigation and broadcast the North Wales programme in context. The first decision is defensible and is only judged (possibly) as erroneous in retrospect; the second has no defence at all. This does not mean that all BBC investigative journalism is suspect as some in the media have suggested. What it does show, however, is that the managerial chain of command is suspect with serious questions to ask about who reported to whom. Although the more general issue of how the BBC is managed is important and needs close examination, the important thing is to restore the image of investigative journalism and that is relatively easy to do: verify your sources, lawyers view and sign off on the programme, senior editor approves broadcast. If these simply and obvious steps were not in place, they should have been and if they were, why did they not work?