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6 July 2012

George who?

Did the BBC really need another safe pair of hands as director general?

By David Herman

The BBC is at a moment of crisis. It can no longer compete for sports rights, especially for football, cricket and horse racing. It can’t compete for the top US imports, from Mad Men to The Simpsons. Its arts programming is less talked about than that of Sky Arts. Its best television current affairs programme, Newsnight, is losing ratings and credibility.

Worst of all, its much criticised coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant suggested an identity crisis. It no longer knows what it’s there for. All those presenters from factual entertainment, the compulsive matiness, the lack of research and lack of sense of occasion, enraged viewers and journalists alike. Whatever else happened, the BBC has always had a fallback position: for the great state occasions, royal weddings, funerals, coronations, no one does it better than the BBC. That is no longer true. And when this was exposed to everyone, the BBC failed to respond. Director General Mark Thompson blathered about rain and went into defensive mode saying it was alright really. It wasn’t the fault of the rain and it wasn’t alright.

Enter George Entwistle, who will succeed Thompson as the BBC’s Director General in September. Entwistle is what the BBC considers a safe pair of hands. He has spent his entire broadcasting career, since arriving in 1989 as a Broadcast Journalist Trainee, at the BBC. Like all modern Director Generals apart from Birt and Dyke he’s a BBC insider through and through. And like Thompson, he has spent most of his programme making career in Current Affairs – an assistant producer on Panorama, a producer on On the Record, eight years at Newsnight, with a two minor excursions beyond current affairs, first a couple of years at Tomorrow’s World and then one season as the launch-editor of the middlebrow Culture Show which defined Mark Thompson’s early years as surely as The Late Show epitomised the more exciting BBC of Michael Jackson and Alan Yentob in the 1990s. It’s the programme-making record that Director Generals are made of. Nothing too exciting but nothing that will frighten the horses.

At the BBC it has always been the channel controllers who are the exciting figures, the ones who made the talked about programmes – David Attenborough and Jonathan Powell, Yentob and Jackson, Michael Grade and Roly Keating. All of them made their mark in music and arts, drama or light entertainment. Director Generals are the grown ups, usually from Current Affairs, men (always) who can be trusted in a crisis. No women, no Jews, no arts or drama, no one from outside the BBC. 

The question is whether a safe pair of hands is what the BBC needs in a crisis. Entwistle will doubtless build on Thompson’s successes. There will be more exciting technology. The archive will go online. There will be more developments like the red button, Freeview, iPlayer and HD TV. There will be more super-smart programmes like Doctor Who, Sherlock and superb dramas like the current Shakespeare history plays and The Shadow Line. The Today programme, The World at One, the News Channel and the Ten O’Clock News will continue to provide an excellent news service on radio and TV.

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The problem, however, is whether Entwistle can deal with the problems he has inherited, and as Controller of Knowledge (2008-11) and Director of BBC Vision (2011-12) has contributed to. First, what can he do about sports rights? Nothing. The licence fee is frozen till 2016 and then has to be renegotiated, during a continuing economic crisis with further austerity measures called for. Cuts at the BBC will continue so he won’t be able to throw money at problems, let alone sports rights. But at least he can start to address some of the growing problems in BBC sports coverage, in particular the cosy, overpaid and very high-profile Hansen, Shearer and Lawrenson team.

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Second, can he do anything about audience share? No. The multi-channel world of cable and internet has done for the BBC’s hegemony. In the 1990s the BBC worked wonders by developing factual entertainment programmes – cookery, gardening, DIY, antiques – which bought them a share of daytime. Under Thompson they have fought all comers for Saturday night entertainment ratings. But overall the big battle has been lost.

Elsewhere, though, much can be done. Seriousness and culture can return centre-stage. The blurring between BBC2 and BBC4 (what are either for?) can be sorted out. BBC3 can be returned to its once clear remit. Disastrous failures like the Diamond Jubilee Pageant can be avoided by being handed back to News and, more important, by restating what the BBC is for. Above all, it’s time to make the BBC more exciting, time to frighten the horses a bit. Thompson wouldn’t. Entwistle should.