To get one Newsnight story about child abuse wrong could be regarded as an unfortunate lapse of editorial management by the BBC. To mess up two such stories in quick succession is much more than careless, and indicative of a failure of executive leadership.
George Entwistle, who served just 54 days as the BBC’s Director General, resigned on Saturday night because he knew that the disaster of the McAlpine story was his responsibility as editor-in-chief.
The transcript of the BBC Radio 4 interview in which Entwistle sealed his fate demonstrates a Director-General who was simply not paying attention when the biggest crisis of the corporation’s history was breaking all over the internet, and indeed in the rest of the mainstream media.
Asked by interviewer John Humphrys why he hadn’t seen the now-notorious McAlpine package before it went out on Friday November 2 he replied: “The film was not drawn to my attention before transmission”.
Oh, okay. But why, asked Humphrys, didn’t he observe on that same Friday the Twitter buzz around the story - that a senior Conservative politician was going to be named as a paedophile? “I check Twitter at the end of the day sometimes – or I don’t”.
What about the Guardian front page splash the next morning, reporting that the McAlpine accusation had now been retracted by the victim, Mr Stephen Messham? No, he didn’t see that either, because “I was giving a speech early in the morning”.
Such detachment, after the firestorm of the Savile story, is incompatible with the role of DG, and after this interview Entwistle’s resignation was inevitable. It is suggested that by removing senior news managers from the Newsnight program following the Savile story Entwistle created a crack in the referral-up system, through which the latest aberration slipped.
That only aggravates his error. The world was watching the BBC, and Newsnight, as never before, in an environment of febrile online speculation. Yet the Director-General had his eyes and ears firmly shut, and no-one on his staff appears to have thought the November 2 story was sensitive enough to bring to his attention.
Will Newsnight survive this double whammy? I hope so, because for most of its thirty-odd years it has represented the best of BBC journalism, and helped keep Britain’s elites under critical scrutiny. The Rottweiler interviewing style of its most famous anchor, Jeremy Paxman, has become legendary. The programme’s investigations and analyses have hitherto been seen as journalism its best.
British political culture would be much the worse without it. But is the brand now too toxic to be viable? In my opinion, no. If a new BBC leadership can reinstate an experienced and recognisably rigorous editorial team at Newsnight, it’s possible that the program’s reputation can be restored.
With a new team in charge, and a clear break with the editorial procedures which led to both the Savile and McAlpine stories, the British public may be prepared to accept that this is an isolated, albeit catastrophic failure of BBC journalism, caused as much by the volatile climate of anxiety around paedophilia as by organisational incompetence or corruption. I hope so, though that depends on how the BBC manages the crisis from here on. Entwistle’s resignation is a necessary step down that path.
As for the future of the BBC itself? One incident, or even two, no matter how serious a breach of journalistic standards, will not destroy the corporation. There have been scandals before, and resignations too. Entwistle’s predecessor but one, Greg Dyke, resigned after the Hutton inquiry criticised the BBC’s editorial processes. On that occasion the corporation was accused of calling the Prime Minister a liar in a scandal which included the suicide of a government official.
Today’s controversy is more lurid, given the child abuse allegations at its core, but could hardly be more damaging to the BBC’s journalistic reputation than that which followed on the Andrew Gilligan ‘sexed-up dossier’ story.
And now, unlike 2004, the commercial news media are themselves on the defensive pending the outcome of the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking and journalistic ethics. Their capacity to attack the BBC is constrained by their own lack of public esteem.
We note, too, that BBC staff have been in the critical vanguard of this story, often attacking their own managers. It was Newsnight journalists who blew the whistle on the spiked Savile story, and the BBC’s Panorama which devoted an hour to the scandal some weeks ago. It was presenter Eddie Mair who, on Newsnight last Friday, led the attack and questioned the programme’s survival. It was John Humphrys on Radio 4 on Saturday morning who suggested to George Entwistle’s face, to an audience of millions, that Entwistle would have to resign. In covering the worst of BBC journalism, we have also seen the best, and been reminded of what editorial independence means.
Most BBC staff are as outraged and bemused by these events as the public they serve. Jeremy Paxman blames the debacle on editorial cuts and excessive managerialism, but that’s too simplistic. Caught in the headlights of a major paedophile scandal involving one of its most loved stars, without the experienced leadership of former-DG Mark Thompson (whose appointment as editor-in-chief of the New York Times is also at risk), the BBC has revealed a deep-rooted, multi-layered dysfunctionality which must be repaired by reasserting reliable and trustworthy journalism as the core of the enterprise.
Otherwise, when Leveson is done and phone-hacking forgotten, the private sector wolves will be back, looking for blood.