Media executive jobs: BBC Director General – the poisoned chalice

Gordon Brown once famously said that there are two types of Chancellor of the Exchequer: those who failed, and those who got out in time. The same may be said of Director Generals of the BBC.

George Entwistle might be feeling like Napoleon’s apocryphal unlucky general today. In a few minutes, the BBC will air its Panorama Special on the Newnight investigation into Jimmy Savile, and why that investigation was dropped. (It is an interesting scheduling choice to put the programme up against Newsnight itself.) Peter Rippon has already “stepped aside” as the programme’s Editor while the matter is investigated; Entwistle’s role in the decision making process also comes under review. Welcome to the broadcast media executive jobs equivalent of the England football manager’s job, Mr Entwistle.

What is interesting about the upcoming Panorama Special is the anger within the BBC about editorial policy. Entwistle has made some errors here – he should not have phrased his statement of 5th October in the way he did - but this can be put down to naivety rather than malevolence. But is it – in John Simpson’s words – “the worst crisis… in nearly 50 years“? Jon Henley mentions some other major moments which might challenge that assertion; not least, the ‘sexed-up’ dossier allegation, and more trivially, the Ross-Brand controversy. These examples display, on the one hand, the desire for over-zealous government to slap the BBC down; and, on the other hand, a culture of complacency within the organisation.

A greater crisis, I suspect, is the agreement under Mark Thompson to take an effective 16% cut in the licence fee. It came at the end of a long period of BBC-kicking by other media and successive governments. It led to great and genuine anger within the BBC, and particularly in the news teams whose output was likely to be severely restricted. But it is not surprising that Thompson was not prepared to fight: his predecessor – Greg Dyke – had paid for his own ‘publish and be damned’ attitude. Still, Thompson left on his own terms. He got out in time.

But the anger which had grown under Thompson about the capitulation of the BBC – both editorially and managerially – has found its outlet now. The BBC is always reticent in its criticism of other media organisations. In order to show balance, it is always dramatically – and self-destructively – critical of its own failures. Entwistle is reaping the whirlwind of BBC news teams’ frustrations. This is manna for the BBC’s enemies in the media and in politics.

It will take strong management to navigate around this. Given that I am currently watching not just Panorama’s report on Newsnight on BBC1, but Newsnight’s report on Panorama’s report on BBC2, both of which are implicitly critical of Entwistle, it remains to be seen which category of DG he will turn out to be.