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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.