BBC News

Press give verdict on Entwistle evidence

Torin Douglas
Former media correspondent

image copyrightReuters
image captionGeorge Entwistle was grilled by MPs for two hours

The director general of the BBC, George Entwistle, has admitted to MPs that the reputation of the BBC has been called into question by the scandal over the revelations that Jimmy Savile sexually abused young girls.

When George Entwistle first volunteered to answer questions from the Culture Media & Sport committee about the Jimmy Savile scandal, it seemed a good idea.

By showing he had nothing to hide, it was hoped the new BBC director general could regain the initiative, countering claims he'd been slow to react when the allegations against Jimmy Savile first emerged.

That initiative seems to have backfired in spectacular fashion, if MPs' reactions and the subsequent morning headlines are any guide.

"Baffled Bumbling Clueless - BBC chief humiliated" is The Sun's front-page splash headline.

"Get a grip, Mr Entwistle, MPs tell the DG" reports the Daily Mail.

"It was a busy lunch" is the Independent's headline, quoting Mr Entwistle's explanation for what the committee chairman John Whittingdale called his "extraordinary lack of curiosity" in not asking more questions.

The paper goes on: "Director general stuns MPs with excuse for his ignorance over Savile investigation, blames his colleagues - and confirms nine more claims of sexual abuse at BBC."

Perhaps most wounding of all was the headline on Channel 4 News, which has added to the nightly discomfort of its old rival Newsnight with a string of further revelations.

"Is Auntie a laughing stock?" it asked, over pictures showing laughter in the committee room, as the Conservative MP Philip Davies mockingly scored another point off the director general.

media captionBBC director general George Entwistle said the Newsnight investigation should have been able to continue

Following the session, the culture secretary Maria Miller wrote to BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten saying "very real concerns" were now being raised about public trust in the BBC.

He responded with what some saw as a thinly-veiled warning to the minister: "I know that you will not want to give any impression that you are questioning the independence of the BBC."

In some ways, the new director general was unlucky.

Just five weeks into his new job, after a minimal honeymoon period, he might have hoped the committee would cut him some slack.

He had set up two inquiries into the Savile allegations, headed by clearly independent figures. He had formed a good working relationship with the Metropolitan Police, who had asked him to delay launching any BBC enquiry until they had got further with their own investigations.

With his actions supported by the BBC Trust and its chairman Lord Patten, Mr Entwistle believed he had done the right things and could demonstrate he was taking a grip.

Those hopes were dashed on Monday morning when he was forced to admit that he and other senior figures had misled the public over the reasons for dropping its Newsnight investigation.

The BBC said a blog post written by Newsnight editor Peter Rippon defending his decision was "inaccurate or incomplete in some respects", leading David Cameron to say the BBC had "effectively changed its story".

That evening, the BBC's failings over Newsnight were further exposed by one of its own programmes, Panorama - hours before its director general's appearance in front of the Culture Committee.

Select committees can sometimes resemble a 21st Century bear-pit, where MPs delight in scoring points over public servants they want to take down a peg or two - although the Culture Committee is by no means the most aggressive.

image captionSavile presented children's show Jim'll Fix It from 1975 to 1994

Soon Mr Davies had the director general on the run, with a series of quick-fire questions about who at the BBC had "bussed in" vulnerable girls to Top of the Pops and allowed them access to the stars' dressing rooms.

Mr Entwistle argued in vain that the Panorama programme - far from showing a BBC in chaos, as some had suggested - demonstrated the independence of the BBC's journalism, freely holding its bosses to account.

He insisted he had deliberately not asked more questions about the Newsnight investigation so as to protect BBC journalists from improper managerial pressure.

Here he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't: either he was interfering or he was lacking in curiosity.

Mr Entwistle told the MPs that after watching the Panorama programme he firmly believed the investigation should have been allowed to continue, even if Mr Rippon thought it was not yet ready for transmission.

He revealed he had personally asked the editor to "step aside" from his job because of the inaccuracies in his blog, which had set out the "editorial reasons" for halting the Savile investigation.

Was he angry at being let down by his subordinate, asked Damian Collins MP? No, he was "disappointed".

The MPs delivered no killer blow - the burst of laughter was the most uncomfortable moment - but they had been looking for a clear signal that the director general had got a grip and made clear that they hadn't found it.

The New Statesman gave this verdict: "George Entwistle: A decent man out of his depth". It added: "The director general of the BBC came to the House of Commons to restore his reputation over the Jimmy Savile scandal - and failed."

Mr Rippon has made no public response, but will give his side of the story to the independent review led by the former head of Sky News, Nick Pollard.

Now all eyes will be on that review, which has been asked to determine "whether there were any failings in the BBC's management of the Newsnight investigation".

It is being conducted as a matter of urgency - and it will not make comfortable reading.