Regulation time come on…..

There may be cause for a slight smile on the faces of some senior BBC figures at the moment after their travails of the last couple of weeks. It’s not that they’re out of the woods as far as the whole Savile/Newsnight/DG resignation debacle is concerned – more that they’re no longer alone in the media doghouse.

The communications regulator Ofcom is looking into the BBC’s behaviour but at the same time it will be investigating the ITV This Morning programme and Philip Schofield’s ‘ambushing’ of David Cameron by waving a list of those who’d been named in the electronic world as possible paedophiles. In fact one of the contributors to the BBC’s own Any Questions programme on Radio 4 this weekend – Alex Deane who’s Head of Public Affairs for Public Relations company Weber Shandwick – said in his view it was ITV, rather than the BBC, who’d committed the cardinal sin of telling people to go and look online for the name of the ‘Top Tory’ rumoured to have been involved in abuse. It was probably sweeter still that this came from a man who is normally no cheerleader for the Corporation and who thinks it should be privatised.

Then the chink in the clouds opened still further with Lord McAlpine’s lawyers saying they would be seeking bigger libel damages from ITV than the £185,000 settlement reached with the BBC over the Newsnight November 2nd broadcast. Lord McAlpine was always at pains to point out that he was conscious that any amount he received from the BBC would have to come from licence payers. ITV on the other hand is a commercial entity and cannot expect the same consideration.

In his letter to the MP Rob Wilson, Ofcom’s Director of Standards, Tony Close, said: “I can confirm that Ofcom considers that both the Newsnight and This Morning programmes raise issues warranting investigation in relation to: 1) the application of generally accepted standards by ITV and the BBC and 2) the application of standards to prevent unfair treatment to an individual and unwarranted infringements of privacy.”

That’s certain to lead to more uncomfortable days for the BBC and some disquiet at ITV, which says it’s already taken disciplinary measures. But for Ofcom this affair could be seen in a wholly more positive light. With Lord Leveson’s recommendations for press regulation about to be published this is a timely reminder that some have suggested an Ofcom type body to oversee newspapers or even that Ofcom itself should have its role extended to take on the brief. What better way to show your credentials as a regulator with TV than to take on the two big broadcasters in the one investigation.

Of course it’s all too late to influence Lord Leveson but it won’t harm the cause of Ofcom boss Ed Richards who is seen by some as a strong candidate to be the BBC’s Director General. Either way there’s likely to be pressure for a review of how broadcasting is regulated – and that could mean more power for Ofcom, particularly in relation to what happens on the web. One of its former Chief Advisers, Martin Campbell, who now chairs the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, says in a contribution to a BBC Online story about the future of the BBC: “The Newsnight mess and the This Morning debacle are both prime examples of a worrying new broadcasting arrogance born out of a frustration that websites, blogs and posts can create waves daily without the risk of regulatory wrath. Internet “news” is regularly being reported by the traditional broadcast media with a cavalier disregard for the level of responsibility viewers and listeners are entitled to expect. It’s not just Leveson, broadcast regulation needs a good look at.”

So a word of advice for any senior broadcast executives who may be in need of a new berth – look for an opening in regulation.



It’s a ‘Strictly’ moment for BBC executives

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’.