|George Entwistle, former BBC Director-General|
So the BBC has lost it's Director General, resigning from the job after less than eight weeks. What is that job and why does this crisis matter? First of all, what happened?
The Director General of the BBC has a dual role- Chief Executive of the corporation and what is known as 'Editor-in-Chief'. A Chief executive is usually the highest ranking officer of an organisation, in charge of its management. He or she is generally responsible to a board of directors; in the case of the BBC, this is the BBC Trust, which is there to ensure that the BBC delivers its mission to the public, of informing, educating and entertaining, in effect ensuring that the licence payer gets value for money. So the Director General is the top manager at the BBC (a bit like the Headteacher of a school), with lots of other people down the chain responsible for their own departments, such as radio stations, television channels and news. What complicates this slightly is the second part of the DG's role- 'editor-in-chief'- which relates specifically to the content of what the BBC puts out; ultimately, he or she is responsible for the accuracy of its news coverage.
The recent crisis at the BBC really first blew up in early October, when ITV's Exposure programme made a series of revelations about Jimmy Savile, alleging that he had had sex with a number of underage girls, including some on BBC premises. Though these allegations dated back a number of years, the story also broke that BBC's Newsnight had at least part of this story almost a year earlier but decided not to broadcast it. As the story unravelled, it was claimed that the reason Newsnight dropped the story was because it would spoil programmes celebrating the life of Savile scheduled to go out over Christmas 2011 (he had died in October 2011)). It also transpired that George Entwistle, later to become Director General, but at the time Head of Vision (TV), had been 'tipped off' by Helen Boaden (Head of News) that Newsnight was investigating Savile, but assumed that the story had been dropped for lack of evidence.
Following the Exposure revelations, George Entwistle, as Director General of the BBC, announced two enquiries would be held- one into what went on in the BBC at the time Savile worked there, and one specifically on what happened to the Newsnight investigation. By the time he appeared in front of the House of Commons Select committee for Culture, Media and Sport to answer questions from MPs on October 23, Entwistle had been put in a very difficult situation. The editor of Newsnight (in effect the main decision-maker for the programme), Peter Rippon, had been forced to step down from his role after contradictory versions of his account of what had happened emerged. Panorama had run a programme which delved into what had happened around the shelving of that Newsnight investigation and found that there were many more questions to be answered. Entwistle had a torrid time answering MPs questions and came over as out-of-touch with what was going on at the BBC.
However, though more and more allegations emerged across different news media about the long-term behaviour of Jimmy Savile, the pressure seemed to have eased on Entwistle; then Newsnight, with a new temporary editor, decided to run another child abuse scandal story, some would say in order to make up for what had gone wrong in not running the Savile story. On 2 November, the programme looked at the case of a children's home in North Wales where there had been a major scandal in the 1990s with some criminal convictions of former staff and a massive public Inquiry. The programme alleged that the Inquiry had involved a cover-up of some of the evidence, with some well known people getting away with crimes of abuse against boys who lived there. One of the interviewees alleged that a top Conservative politician of the time had abused him. The programme did not name this person, but speculation was rife online, notably on twitter, and it was very easy to find his name and that of several other alleged abusers from the Conservative party.
Again the story gathered momentum across the media until Thursday 8th November, when on ITVs This Morning programme, presenter Philip Schofield handed the Prime Minister a piece of card with the names of these accused politicians which he had found in a "three minute" internet search. This caused a bit of a storm, but nothing to what happened on Friday, when The Guardian ran a front page story questioning whether Newsnight's witness had made a mistake over the identity of the senior politician. It turned out that he had, that the programme makers had not even checked by showing him a photo of the man he was accusing, and that they had not followed journalistic practice of putting the accusations to the accused. Worse still, a week earlier, former Newsnight journalist, now at Channel 4, Michael Crick, had phoned the man himself and tweeted:
""Senior political figure: due to be accused tonight by the BBC of being paedophile denies allegations + tells me he'll issue libel writ agst BBC."
The man who claimed he had been abused by the senior Tory had to issue a public apology. The BBC had to issue a public apology. The rest of the media went mad, once again revelling in the BBC's discomfort, and on Saturday morning, Entwistle did the rounds of the BBC news outlets- TV news, Radio 4 and Radio 5 and gave a disastrous performance. He said that he hadn't known about the Newsnight programme till after it was put out, that he hadn't read or been told about Crick's tweet and that he hadn't seen the previous day's Guardian, all of which made it very hard to see how he could be 'editor-in-chief' at the corporation. By the end of the day, the inevitable had happened, as in a brief statement he announced his resignation. The BBC was now without a Director General.