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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser