George Entwistle: a decent man out of his depth

The director general of the BBC failed to convince MPs that he was not guilty of wilful blindness.

The director general of the BBC came to the House of Commons this morning to restore his reputation over the Jimmy Savile scandal - and failed. After a two-hour ordeal by MPs on the culture select committee, George Entwistle left to be doorstepped by one of his own reporters and asked if he planned to resign.

Entwistle volunteered to appear to demonstrate he'd got a grip on the increasing chaos within the BBC. Just 12 hours earlier, viewers had seen one prestigious BBC programme, Panorama, sit in judgement of another, Newsnight, and raise serious questions about leadership in the corporation. They heard of furious rows between staff and the Newsnight editor amid suspicion he had been leaned on from above before deciding to axe an investigation into Savile. Enwistle was there today to demonstrate that the BBC had acted properly throughout; that his were indeed the safe pair of hands the BBC needed at this momentous time.

Sadly, what emerged during the confrontation was a picture of a decent man out of his depth in this crisis. It was an obviously nervous DG who was welcomed to the  Thatcher Room by committee chairman John Whittingdale,who is sometimes brighter than he looks. Within minutes, he had Entwistle muttering "maybe's and should's"as he made mild-mannered replies to charges that the BBC seemed rudderless.

If that was't a bad enough start, he was then turned over to the committee's in-house Tory rottweiler, Phillip Davies MP, for whom obtuse abuse is second nature. It was obvious that the DG rarely spends his time in the company of such people, as his every attempt to be pleasant in reply to Davies's increasingly irrelevant questions met with further insults. Having asked him about events in the 1970s, Davies accused Entwistle of a "lamentable lack of knowledge" and sat down to self-applause.

But the director general was on equally rocky ground as he rolled between MPs of all parties obviously unimpressed by his view of the business he now runs. As he confirmed that the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, had been "stood aside" following a series of errors in his recollection of the affair, he was asked if he was "angry". "I was very disappointed indeed," he said, as if anger was an emotion not to be found about his person.

But the best, or worst, had been saved for last when committee chairman Whittingdale finally turned to the matter of who knew what when the Newsnight Savile probe was dropped. As the executive in charge of the eulogy programmes being planned  on Savile, "yes" Entwistle had been told in a brief conversation that Newsnight were looking into the DJ's past. But "no" he had not asked what it was about, he told the increasingly incredulous MPs, because that might have been seen as interference in the editorial process.

This three monkeys approach to management went down like a lead balloon with the MPs. "You are beginning to sound like James Murdoch", said Damian Collins, as the DG denied turning "a blind eye" to the Newsnight investigation. But when chairman Whittingale asked what he thought the programme was investigating, Entwistle replied: "I don't remember reflecting on it". Having agreed early and decisive action was needed, he told the committee the the independent inquiry into Newsnight by Nick Pollard could take four or five weeks. All that remains now is for the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, to declare he has "total confidence" in his DG. 

BBC director general George Entwistle leaves Portcullis House in Parliament after giving evidence to the media select committee. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.