And so farewell then, George Entwhistle. The Head of Vision who didn’t see his own programmes, Twitter or, apparently, the Guardian newspaper, which on Friday revealed that Newsnight had falsely alleged that a senior Conservative politician from the Thatcher era had been a paedophile. Mr Entwhistle had only been Director General of the BBC for 54 days, but the corporation will never be the same again.
The BBC’s journalism may be discredited, but it remains a past master at publicising its own misfortune. Friday’s Newsnight, when the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme lashed itself to exhaustion over a programme on child sex abuse that should never have been broadcast, was one of the most compelling television events since – well – since the Panorama two weeks ago that lambasted Newsnight for its failure to transmit a programme on child sex abuse that should have been broadcast. I don’t think the programme can survive this – after 32 years it is time to lay Newsnight to rest.
Then, yesterday morning, John Humprhys ended the career of his own boss by interrogating George Entwhistle to destruction on the Today programme. It was the worst performance by a BBC executive since Mr Entwhistle’s humiliation at the hearing of the Commons Media Committee when he was openly ridiculed by MPs for suggesting that it wasn’t his job to know what was going on in his leading current affairs programmes.
Yesterday, George Entwhistle repeated the ludicrous argument that he was “not the editor of Newsnight” to justify his ignorance of what was going on in BBC programmes even when it involved defaming a political figure. It beggars belief that, following the BBC’s crisis over the spiked Savile report, the BBC’s Editor in Chief did not know, and was not informed, that the same programme was intending to run a report about sexual abuse by a senior Conservative politician of the Thatcher era, who was named almost immediately the internet – falsely – as the former Conservative treasurer, Lord McAlpine.
Asked why he didn’t see the Newsnight programme the DG said “I was out”. That may be his epitaph. He didn’t see Lord McAlpine outed on Twitter or the front page of Friday’s Guardian that exonerated the former Tory deputy chairman. Mr Entwhistle was not so much asleep at the wheel as comatose in charge of the runaway train. He has resigned in disgrace but may still find himself in court, since Lord McAlpine’s lawyers have made clear they intend to sue for defamation.
What has gone wrong at the Beeb? Well, too many bureaucrats for a start, tripping over each other in their eagerness to off-load responsibility. Over the last twenty years, since John Birt, initiative and creativity has been stifled by management jargon and buried by consultancy. The BBC increasingly out-sources its journalism to organisations like the Bureau for Investigative Journalism that did much of the leg work on the paedophile stories. This is an abdication of editorial responsibility that would have been inconceivable when I worked for the BBC. You can’t take investigative journalism off the peg; you have to check it in house.
According to the BBC’s own careers website, the corporation employes more than 7,000 news journalists. Yet not one of them lifted the phone to Lord McAlpine or checked out the reliability of his accuser, Steve Messham. No one even showed him a photograph of Lord McAlpine to check if it was the right guy. And of course the Editor in Chief didn’t want to know because it’s not his job to know. I recently criticised the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, for saying the Savile affair that was the worst crisis for the BBC in 50 years. It is now.