The last time the BBC found itself trapped in a swirl of events — over the death of the scientist David Kelly — its entire system of governance appeared to implode. First, the director general had to go; then a loyally supportive chairman of the governors went as well; finally, the governors themselves were swept away, replaced from on Downing Street high by a trust designed to monitor from a distance rather than get down and dirty in the corporation’s defense. However now, for the first time really, that new structure is under severe test. And it does not seem fit for purpose.
The depressing saga of the alleged rapist and former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile tests structures beyond Broadcasting House, to be sure, not least at the UK health service. Nor is it easy to make rational decisions amid a chorus of scorn from commercial rivals and the BBC’s own incensed journalists. Yet, even so, the corporation’s response has been shambolic. Was a proper inquiry into the alleged events of decades past necessary?
At first it was not. Well, perhaps it was, once the police had finished their investigations. However, now it seems that at least two BBC independent inquiries — plus a slightly less independent inquiry and perhaps an umbrella inquiry pulling all strands together — may be required. To which, in true BBC form, should probably be added an inquiry into why so few inquiries suddenly became so many.
There are particular problems here. One’s a brand new director general unversed in bureaucratic intricacies. Another is his very theoretical bit part as supremely under-involved ringmaster of both last Christmas’ Jimmy Savile tribute show and the Newsnight investigation that might have exposed a serial child molester. However, the biggest problem of all appears far simpler: Who is in charge? Director-general George Entwistle? His executive board? Lord Patten at the BBC Trust? Or nobody, in any sure-footed way?
Structures are one thing, but human relationships can be quite another. BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten did not appoint Mark Thompson, the just-departed director-general. He did personally appoint his successor, George Entwistle, amid speculation that he would now take a tighter grip on the organization itself (while leaving young Entwistle to worry about the programs). However, his interventions through last week, via a running commentary of public speeches, radio interviews or letters to George Entwistle, did not seem to manifest anything you could quite call grip.
He might, in the curious fashion of our times, have apologized for tawdry encounters in the green rooms of long ago. However, not having been there at the time or responsible for anything, he left such apologies to George Entwistle, who was not there or responsible either. He could have set up his own inquiry or inquiries. However, that didn’t happen.
He could have questioned Newsnight’s decision to scrap its 12 minutes of Savile reportage in December last year, but he said that was editorial, so not his job. However, it was, apparently, his job to laud Panorama’s work on abuse in care homes or inbreeding of pedigree dogs as luminous instances of the corporation’s dedication to investigative reporting. And, naturally, no director general’s in-tray was complete, by the week’s end, without a letter from Patten seeking Entwistle’s assurances “that our current child-protection policy, processes, guidance and training” are in tip-top shape.