By George, I think he hasn’t got it!

What a shame Joyce Grenfell is no longer with us. Her lip-curling delivery of the admonition “oh George’ in her monologues managed to convey a combination of disapproval, disappointment and a sense that George was doing something distasteful at the back of the class. All very appropriate to sum up the appearance of the BBC’s Director General before the members of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.
You have to feel sorry on one level for a man who has to handle the ‘Savile affair’ and the fallout from the shelved ‘Newsnight’ investigation just a few weeks into his new job. At the same time, though, George is the architect of his own troubles. If in his previous post as Head of Vision (a tile that means he runs TV rather than having special insights to the BBC’s future) he had shown just the merest hint of curiosity about what Newsnight was doing, this story might now be playing out rather differently.
His performance in front of the committee – and the reporting and analysis of it in the press – will ensure that however long Mr. Entwhistle’s tenure as DG may be, he will be remembered as the one who mishandled a scandal. MPs were rightly amazed by his failure to press Helen Boaden (the BBC head of news) for any detail of the Newsnight investigation and his more recent failure to talk to journalists on the programme.
Instead, he made it clear he relies on BBC chains of command and is anxious not to show ‘undue interest’ in such things as an individual programme. You could see what he was driving at but this man is a journalist. Worse still he’s a product of the excellent BBC News Trainee system which has served the Corporation (and the country) so well in turning out an elite corps of reporters and producers. Did he miss the sessions on listening carefully to what you’re being told and asking the questions necessary to find out exactly what a story is about? George lamented the fact that he had been let down by a BBC ethos he had previously been able to rely on. He can console himself that he is not alone in feeling let down by the BBC.
Savile aside this affair has given us a glimpse into the thinking of senior BBC managers and journalists and, for me, highlights two key areas. First, the BBC needs like all institutions to open itself to new thinking and other ways of doing things when it comes to appointing top management. Mr. Entwhistle is, whatever time he spent working elsewhere, too much of a BBC man. When his successor is appointed (and that might yet be sooner than we would have thought) he or she needs to come from outside the institution. Secondly Peter Rippon’s explanation for dropping the Savile investigation was that it had found no evidence of institutional failure by Surrey Police or the Crown Prosecution Service. It doesn’t matter now whether or not that was the actual reason, the fact that a senior editorial figure would see that as an acceptable basis for a decision shows a journalistic mindset that places ‘issues’ above stories. There may have been no police or CPS failures and so no issue but as we now know his team had found a really strong story, so why not tell it?
I was asked by an American journalist the other day whether it was appropriate for one BBC programme, Panorama, to be investigating another. I said it was not just appropriate but showed some of the BBC’s journalistic strengths. I still believe that, but with Mr. Rippon now reportedly considering suing his employers over the Panorama report, I can understand why it’s difficult for Uncle Sam to understand Auntie’s ways.