Lesley Riddoch: BBC could turn crisis into a coup

George Entwistle speaks to the media. Picture: Getty
George Entwistle speaks to the media. Picture: Getty
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IF the BBC Trust acts courageously in choosing a new director-general, Auntie could come out of this the stronger, writes Lesley Riddoch

Is the BBC out of the woods? BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten steadied nerves on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show with a candid if partial admission of systemic failure in BBC management. He called for a “thorough, radical, structural overhaul” and observed that the hapless George Entwistle was trying to “get away from the silos and infighting and devolve decisions” when he was “tragically overwhelmed” by those very problems. Entwhistle’s vision – according to Lord Patten – was the reason he’d been the board’s unanimous choice as director general.

Unfortunately, that simply opens the can of worms a little wider. If the BBC Trust thinks it picked the right person for the job last time – only to see the former Newsnight editor swamped by the first (albeit) monster wave – can it be trusted to decide who should steer the ship next? Or is the BBC essentially “rudderless”, to slightly misquote veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby?

Of course, if every board resigned over the failure of an appointee, instability and uncertainty would reign. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to achieve serious cultural change in organisations without change at board level. A new Scotland manager will struggle to succeed with the old SFA board. The need for a clean sweep gave Alex Salmond victory in 2007 – and could sweep him away again if his government becomes a closed, “talk to the hand” administration.

So do Patten and the BBC Trust board need to go – have Newsnight’s failures revealed passing or fundamental problems with BBC governance?

The most damaging accusation is “shoddy journalism”. This – after all – is the main reason we have a licence fee. Aunty’s expected to lead the way with accurate, balanced and robust methods of gathering news and conducting investigations. During my 20 years as a BBC trainee, producer, reporter and presenter based in London and Scotland, standards were indeed high. Most network producers went through a post-graduate degree and rigorous two-year in-house BBC training programme. Such staff hardly needed editors to tell them what they already knew about production.

Breaking news couldn’t be broadcast until verified by two independent sources. Potentially libellous allegations and plans for covert recording had to be “referred up” within the Beeb’s news hierarchy. Both sides of a story had to be presented, defamatory comment avoided and double-checking became second nature. All of this could have stifled the urge to investigate completely – if the BBC had not employed carnaptious, thrawn and strong-minded people as staff. The combination of tough checks, thorough training and persistent people produced good journalism – and sometimes confrontation with BBC management.

I vividly remember a police raid of BBC Scotland premises in 1986 over a programme about the Zircon spy satellite by campaigning journalist Duncan Campbell. His whole Secret Society series had alarmed BBC Governor and Tory placeman “Duke” Hussey whose pressure prompted Director General Alasdair Milne to shelve the programme and then resign. This capitulation to government shaped a generation of outspoken, opinionated (but still careful) BBC staff. But almost 20 years later BBC capitulation over Andrew Gilligan and Iraq war coverage prompted a very different response. Today a generation of producers is still uncertain about editorial decision-making.

Perhaps this is what Jeremy Paxman meant at the weekend when his agent tweeted of Entwistle’s resignation: “The real problem here is the BBC’s decision, in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, to play safe by appointing biddable people. They then compounded the problem by enforcing a series of cuts on programme budgets, while bloating the management. It is a great pity that a talented man has been sacrificed while time-servers prosper.”

But talent alone can’t rid an organisation of “time-serving.” George Entwistle wasn’t enough of an operator to get to grips with the meeting-itis, bureaucracy and caution that bedevils the BBC. Process was king for this “thoroughly decent” man. Yet process may also fatefully have kept him out of the loop over Newsnight’s disastrous child abuse film. He was already under investigation for broadcasting Jimmy Savile tribute programmes while Newsnight was investigating sex abuse allegations against the same man.

This combined with an astonishing reluctance to get involved in the nitty-gritty of problems meant the BBC’s editor-in-chief was completely out of touch with the BBC. He refused an “off-the-record meeting” with worried Newsnight producers, opted not to read newspapers (or specially compiled summaries) or check Twitter (now the belt and braces of world news, gossip and opinion).

How did this “surprisingly brittle” man conceal such chronic disconnectedness and fear of the fight during the BBC appointment process? Or did the gentleman and lady cricketer types on the BBC Trust share the same basic design fault? If George Entwistle was appointed as their proxy then the board itself is part of the problem. Many forces – some of them in Westminster – want a neutered BBC. The public doesn’t and the BBC Trust is there to safeguard our interests.

So this could still be a “good crisis” if trust members summon the courage to revisit 2003 when the BBC lost confidence, direction and its most dynamic director general. We need another Greg Dyke today – plain-speaking, creative, tough and funny, an excellent communicator, a canny operator and above all, a people person.

Confidence within the BBC is the issue at stake here. Just as “cotton-wool” kids have worse accidents (or avoid the big, bad real world altogether on grounds of its uncontrollable complexity), so unconfident, second-guessed, micro-managed production staff eventually go off the boil or go wrong. Newsnight’s two mistakes – the axed Jimmy Savile programme and the wrongly broadcast child abuse film – arise from the same problem. Lack of confidence, aggravated by under-staffing.

Scotland’s not immune. Radio programmes like Good Morning Scotland are sometimes made with one producer and one reporter. Controversial issues and “untested” guests then become too risky to tackle, news therefore becomes the usual views from the usual suspects, producer confidence and public interest fall as red hot issues fail to generate red-hot programmes and producers are tempted to short circuit the whole process with sensational claims.

Restoring zest, resource, capacity and confidence to the front line of broadcasting must be the primary goal for the new director general. Are Lord Patten and the BBC Trust capable of choosing the right person for the job?