Last night at 9pm UK Time, the BBC announced that its top boss, Director General George Entwistle, would be stepping down.Entwistle had been brought down by not one institutional sex abuse scandal but two.
First the there was the case of Sir Jimmy Savile, a long-running BBC host who was accused of multiple acts of sexual abuse after he died. The scope of the scandal may be hard to believe — we’ve likened it to the Penn State scandal but in sheer scale it’s bigger. Entwistle was later called before British politicians to explain why Newsnight, the BBC’s premier nightly news show, had cancelled its own investigation of the allegations against Savile. His explanations fell flat.
The second scandal also involved Newsnight, and occurred just weeks after the first. The show broadcast pedophilia allegations against a Senior Conservative politician, stopping short of naming the politician but sparking online speculation against a clear suspect. Eventually, Newsnight was forced to backtrack, and admit its investigation had been wrong. Entwistle was unable to explain the decision again.
The combined weight of these two scandals cost Entwistle his job. Entwistle, who had spend decades working his way up through the BBC’s news division, was out after just 54 days in office.
It seems likely Entwistle fell on his sword in a bid to end criticism of the BBC’s reporters, and a number of journalists within the BBC and outside of it have come out to defend him. “George Entwistle’s departure is a great shame,” Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman, one of the BBC’s most pugnacious journalists, wrote in a statement. Paxman, typically angry, added, “He has been brought low by cowards and incompetents”.
The BBC in general has also been the subject of support. Despite these recent scandals, the BBC is one of the largest news organisations in the world, with an international and investigative scope that very few others can match. Domestically, it conducts investigative features that few other news organisations could (or would) match, (relatively) unburdened by economic woes and acting on institutional intentions to improve the public good rather than sell advertisements. “On any objective view,” veteran journalist John Ware wrote in today’s Observer newspaper, “the BBC is overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding”.
Others have been less supportive. “There is a systematic problem of leadership and accountability at the BBC,” former BBC journalist Charlie Beckett wrote in a blog post for the London School of Economics. “And tonight’s resignation shows that they have at last begun to recognise that.”
There has been a real acknowledgment that something is wrong at the BBC — a problem that has been made worse by budget cuts and management reshuffles. There has also been a growing criticism from other areas of the press about the fact that the BBC gains 70 per cent of its income from a “licence fee” which anyone who owns a TV is legally required to pay. Notably, the British tabloids have celebrated Entwistle’s fall from grace (“Bye Bye Chump” was how the Sun put it) just as the BBC was so hard on them after the phone hacking case.
Lord Patten, head of the BBC Trust, an independent body that aims to make sure licence payers are getting a good service, has acknowledged that the BBC needs “radical” change. Make no mistake, it really does seem that this scandal has changed the BBC — probably in ways we can’t even understand yet.
To give one pertinent example, Entwistle, like the previous 3 Director Generals, had a long background in the BBC’s journalism departments. The new acting Director General, Tim Davie, was formerly the Vice President for Marketing and Franchise at PepsiCo.
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