I first met George Entwistle when I became head of BBC television news in 2000 and he was a bright up-and-coming output editor. I liked him immediately. I rapidly came to respect his professional skills, too, and in 2001 I appointed him as editor of Newsnight – a role in which he excelled. That sat alongside George’s work during his 23 years in the BBC in science, current affairs, arts – and then the top job in BBC Television.
I was delighted when he became director general because I knew his intelligence, his decency and his humour; and for an all-toobrief period the rest of the organisation glimpsed the potential for a fresh and collegiate leadership. The speed of its collapse is shocking, though the unexpectedness and the severity of the Savile scandal would have swept away many a leader.
History will judge what George and the BBC could have done better in fighting the firestorm but what I do know is that he’s a good man who shouldn’t be held responsible for the evils of previous decades. And as his colleague and friend in recent days, I know he didn’t deserve the level of national vilification that now seems to be the punishment for anyone who makes mistakes in public office or has a bit of a stinker on the Today programme.
As the smoke clears after a grisly weekend, what seems askew is a sense of proportion. People who have sexually abused children should be subject to the full force of the law and put in prison – and I deeply wish that had happened to Jimmy Savile in his lifetime. By contrast, some of the occupiers of the Twitter ducking stool are just decent folk trying to do their job. They may not get every decision right but such is the imperfection of all our lives. And it’s harsh when you hear that the pestering of the paparazzi and the stationing of satellite trucks mean that families don’t feel able to move in and out of their own front doors.
This shouldn’t be seen as luvvie-style moping about not liking it when the heat is on us. We hold others accountable, so there’s no argument that we should be accountable, too. But as a journalistic culture, we should apply ourselves to the difference between what’s serious wrong - doing in the sense of being criminal or wicked – and what’s just a “good” story with fallible human beings at the centre of it.
There’s no question we’ve taken multiple hits as an organisation but you can’t be a BBC boss and not expect periodic crises. I had the privilege of leading the BBC’s Olympics coverage in 2008 and 2012 – and a month after Beijing we had the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand meltdown, which turned our golden glow to ashes. We built back audience trust and achieved record approval ratings for the London Games, only to crash back down again because of Savile.
Having lived through the Hutton inquiry, too, we know that the BBC’s corporate reputation is destined to have a roller-coaster ride. But the deeper test is what audiences think about our programmes rather than about the corporation itself.
Here there is reason for confidence. Last weekend we broadcast moving coverage of Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph and in the Royal Albert Hall, and we’ll be bringing communities together again this weekend for Children in Need. It doesn’t feel that difficult to make the case for the BBC.
It’s usually seen as bad form to have two football teams – even though in my case, as a native Yorkshireman, there’s a heritage argument for Bradford City and a logistical one for Arsenal now I’m a Londoner. Both serve as a reminder that success doesn’t come easy but I’d reassured myself that after Bradford’s brief fling in the Premier League more than a decade ago there was a minuscule risk of them ever meeting again.
But fate has drawn my two teams together in the quarter-final of the League Cup, prompting the inevitable teasing from friends about having to show my true colours. So here’s the solution. For Bradford, this will be a huge payday because they’ve been drawn at home and the match is live on Sky. If they lose, they can concentrate on promotion where they’re currently well placed. For Arsenal, it’s a chance to make it through to the semi-finals against, statistically, the lowliest team left in the competition.
Can we agree that’s what in sporting circles we call a win-win? But Arsenal need to make sure it doesn’t go to penalties: Bradford’s victory over Northampton this week was their eighth winning shoot-out in succession, which is a record England would die for.
I went public earlier this year with a big hate: onions and their spread through ever more food products. The blighters can now be found in some of Marks and Spencer’s sausages and Waitrose’s fish batter. Buoyed by discovering that there are plenty of other onion-haters out there, I emailed one of the supermarkets asking why they think compulsory onion is the perfect accompaniment to cod in breadcrumbs.
The answer was that they’ve been encouraged by health concerns to reduce the amount of salt and that left the product short of flavour – hence the onion. In an era of choice, this is surely an outrageous imposition. I could add salt as a gesture of free will, taking account of the early grave that would beckon, but I can’t remove the smelly onion. This is the unacceptable face of the nanny state, especially when Nanny has onion on her breath.
Roger Mosey is director of BBC Television