Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Defence of George Entwistle and the BBC

Strictly speaking, this blog is supposed to review episodes or series of television. However, the relatively newly-appointed Director-General of the BBC, George Entwistle, has just resigned, and in the world of the media news doesn't get much bigger than that. So because of that, and because you won't find a much bigger advocate of the BBC than me, I feel I can't let this go by without sharing my thoughts.

Two scandals plagued Entwistle's short-lived directorship. The first, the Jimmy Savile child sex abuse scandal; the second, Newsnight's wrongful allegation that an ex-Tory MP had sexually abused children in the 1980s. Whilst the latter will be cited as the official reason why Entwhistle resigned, there is no way that the former's significance can be ignored. 

In recent years we've seen the emergence of a very strong hostility (at least from certain areas of the British press) towards the BBC. It's been criticised extremely heavily in that time, and that is now reflected within the organisation by how apologetic it has become. The Jimmy Savile business was important because it gave the press yet another opportunity to attack the BBC. These attacks aren't as legitimate as they seem, but nevertheless they have been spun in such a way that large swathes of the public, at this moment in time at least, have become very hostile towards the BBC, too, thus continuing the trend that has been occurring for several years now.

The BBC: the target of increasing amounts of unwarranted hostility.
But let's set some things straight. Whilst the BBC as an institution is not by any means without its faults in this, the real issue is being overlooked by the press. The story here is not about the BBC. It is about how a perverted paedophile, once thought to be a national treasure, sexually abused hundreds of children. The press should be telling the victims' stories; they should be helping the victims; they should be dragging Savile's name down into the dirt where it belongs. But instead, the focus has been primarily on the BBC. Yes, it was wrong not to air the edition of Newsnight exposing Savile when they had the opportunity, but focusing on that when there are far more important issues - like bringing other paedophiles who may have been involved to justice - is wrong. Naturally, if such instances of child abuse were occurring at the BBC today, the press would be absolutely right to tear into it. But I just can't understand how it can take the actions of the BBC of 40 years ago and use it to vilify the BBC of today. It's poor journalism, and nothing more than an excuse to once again attack an institution that is being increasingly taken for granted.

Even the best of Director Generals would have struggled to handle the enormity of the Savile sex abuse scandal. Unfortunately, all it did for Entwistle was highlight how ineffective a leader he was (though we have to bear in mind that when the issues emerged he'd barely been in his new job a month), and nowhere was this more clear than in his performance in front of the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I tweeted at the time that he looked like a deer in headlights, and I absolutely stand by that. When it comes to defending the BBC, which a Director General must be able to do extraordinarily well in this day and age, he simply wasn't up to scratch - and that shows in many of the other interviews he's done since then.

George Entwistle, Director-General of the BBC, is forced to resign.
And then we come to the issue of Newsnight falsely implicating Lord McAlpine in a separate sex abuse scandal. Newsnight and Steve Messham (who was the one who made the claim against him) were absolutely at fault here, and the BBC were right to offer their "unreserved" apology. But for a Director General to resign over such a mistake? That strikes me as very excessive. I'd argue that if it weren't for the Savile business, and if it weren't for all the vitrol that the BBC has to constantly endure, Entwhistle would still be in a job. The press used Savile's actions to smear the BBC's image as much as possible, and it did a very good job of it, too. News of Newsnight's mistaken allegations was probably just the icing on the cake for them. The only way that the BBC could even hope to amend this image that has been projected on them in the light of these scandals (one which has been accepted by large parts of the public) and begin to restore their reputation was to force a man who didn't actually do anything wrong to resign. And they should never have been put in such a position in the first place. Bear in mind that the BBC is being attacked now for a genuine mistake it has made, and one for which it has apologised profusely. Now compare that to many of the stories we read in tabloids these days. When readers read, for example, the Daily Mail, many of them are acutely aware that many of the articles they are reading are very likely to have been based on nothing more than speculation, and in some cases may even be pure fabrication. And yet this kind of journalism is accepted in our society purely because it has the excuse of being tabloid rubbish. But that is fundamentally wrong. Journalism is journalism, and to allow some areas of the press to get away with lies day-in and day-out whilst the BBC gets crucified for honest mistakes for which it publicly apologises is hypocritical and shameful.

Entwhistle's resignation perfectly typifies how apologetic the BBC has become. If the BBC were not the subject of so many attacks (primarily from the right-wing media), whilst it would have apologised for the Newsnight/McAlpine business and wished for a better handling of the Savile scandal, it would not have pressured its own Director-General to resign. But that is not the case. And because of how things stand in terms of the relationship between the BBC and the public/press, a man who could have done a lot of good for the corporation was forced to fall on his sword. This should not have happened, and it is our responsibility to no longer tolerate the baseless, unwarranted attacks on the BBC that have become the norm, and to stop taking for granted what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest broadcaster in the world.

George Entwhistle: The 15th Director-General of the BBC.

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