As E. J. Thribb might have said, “So farewell then, George Entwistle. You were DG for just 54 days but made yourself a name. Enjoy the pay off, though Keith’s mum says you don’t deserve it.”
Listening to John Humphries interview the hapless Mr. Entwistle on Saturday it was obvious he would have to go. Humphries was at his clinical best as he asked all the obvious questions and then skewered the DG with that simple point about his lack of curiosity. It echoed exactly the point made by members of the House of Commons Culture, media and Sport Committee when poor George gave evidence about the previous crisis – the one, you may recall, the veteran BBC man John Simpson said was the worst he could recall.
Two crises in 54 days would bring down just about anybody, let alone someone whose handling of questioning by the MPs and then by ‘Today’ painted a clear picture of a man out of his depth and failing to show even the basic journalistic instincts (or simple curiosity) that might have headed off each crisis.
I can’t accept that the DG has done the honourable thing – that would be leaving his post as a sign that he accepted responsibility for something that was none of his own doing. In this case he was the architect of his own fall and if he hadn’t gone he would undoubtedly be facing calls for his head.
But, at least he’s gone (we’ll come back to the pay off) which is rather different from ‘stepping aside’. This is BBC management speak for what’s happening to other senior BBC types – and seems to owe its creation to the Corporation’s fascination with Strictly Come Dancing. Fist there was Peter Rippon (that first crisis again) who ‘stepped aside’ as editor of Newsnight. Now the BBC’s Head of News, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, have stepped aside.
The BBC has said neither of them “had anything at all to do with the failed Newsnight investigation into Lord McAlpine. However, they were in the chain of command at the time that Newsnight shelved an earlier investigation into abuse claims against former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. They had removed themselves from making decisions on some areas of BBC News output while a separate inquiry, by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard, was held into that decision.”
I’ve worked with (for) Fran Unsworth, the Head of Newsgathering, who will fill Helen Boaden’s role while she’s ‘stepped out’ for a while. She’s a solid journalist and will do a good job – not least in reminding the staff that both these crises have involved just one programme, ‘Newsnight’ and much of the rest of the BBC’s journalism remains exemplary. Take a listen to the Humphries/Entwistle interview and you’ll hear just how robust and meticulous BBC news programmes can be.
Two things, though, worry me. First the Entwistle pay-off. Whatever his contract may have said, I’m with Keith’s mum. Nobody should get a year’s salary for failing to do their job properly even if they’ve managed to get past the 54 day barrier. Secondly, too much attention now is on the BBC. This scandal is really about the abuse of children whether it was by Jimmy Savile or a top Tory and whether it was on BBC premises or in a North Wales hotel. There are real victims here and they deserve to be the centre of media attention. They don’t get the option to ‘step aside’.