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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.