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.