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.
Now, Patten is one of the most experienced and intelligent ex-politicians around. Though his old Tory allegiances may have been no great handicap when British Prime Minister David Cameron chose him, he was respected enough to leave many BBC insiders sighing with relief. He will fight all the necessary corners as the nightmare of charter renewal and survival comes nearer. However, in a way, the perception that he is probably the right man at the right time only makes the current desuetude worse.
There are reasons for not clambering on to the soap boxes of sanctimony too swiftly. The surge of Savile instant moralizing needs to subside a little. However, when something as damnable for the BBC seems to go wrong, then clear problems of leadership follow.
The most urgent questions for the BBC today are not, in fact, about the ethos of the 1970s, the groping hands of dead DJs, the silence of the molested damned. Hospitals and prisons as well as broadcasting establishments will have to address those. No; the first, most insistent media question asks whether Newsnight’s 12 minutes got junked because of sticky bureaucratic fingers higher up the decision-making chain? It is a demand that, in a commonsense way, almost answers itself. No bureaucratic blanket could stifle this story in the end. It was beyond suppression and therefore beyond any sentient move to wish it away.
However, it was not — and is not — no-go territory for the Trust. These allegations of double-dealing are just as damaging as allegations of poll faking on the children’s TV show Blue Peter. Why should anyone but Patten call an inquiry here? Why should Entwistle be left to blink alone in a spotlight he does not deserve? Where are the six outside members of the executive board when they are needed to speak out (as well as superintend proliferating inquiries)? How do they interlock with Patten’s trusties?
“The BBC exists above all on trust and the relationship between the wider public and the BBC itself,” according to one of Patten’s panegyrics last week. “And when the BBC is at its best, it’s not only because it’s providing terrific, creative, challenging TV and radio, but because the public think they own it and can identify with it.”
Well, if the public truly thinks that, it may wonder why the BBC could not even put up a spokesman to debate the Newsnight shambles on Newsnight itself on Thursday. People may wonder why the Trust that supposedly exists at arm’s length to call the corporation to account appears to have one arm tied behind its back. And they must worry deeply about a self-made crisis that, yet again, lands the public service broadcaster we need in a mire of its own making.
Call for Lord Justice Leveson? No, anything but that. However do, long before charter renewal starts in earnest, begin to create the leaner, fitter management structure that, to be fair, both Entwistle and Patten say they want. One that knows what is happening in the department next door, let alone down the corridor. And one that, as time unpicks so many costly convolutions of the former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown managerial era, asks what was really so wrong with the old board of governors? What has this Trust contrivance got to offer, apart from confusion?