A formal scandal for the BBC

November 12, 2012

The British love form. Not for nothing the phrases “good form” andbad form” were, until recently, compliments, or severe criticism, of behavior. Four and a half centuries of internal peace in England have allowed the country’s traditional roles and offices to remain intact for outward show, their “forms” undisturbed. The monarch, the Lords and Ladies of the upper chamber of Parliament, the Church of England, the hundreds of orders given for public service each year ‑ all are more or less devoid of substance, there for the gorgeousness of their mere existence. All these forms — and yet more that will go unmentioned ‑ still attract formal obeisance, remain envied and, where possible, are sought after.

This past weekend another piece of British form encountered a media storm, and may not recover its original … form. The director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, George Entwistle, in the post for less than two months, resigned late on Saturday night. In his short stint in office two separate scandals emerged with, at their roots, allegations of pedophilia. Those scandals transfixed the Corporation and destroyed Entwistle’s career.

In the first case, a Newsnight investigation into the pedophilia of a BBC star presenter for decades, the late Sir(!) Jimmy Savile ‑ he was a member of the Order of the British Empire as well as a knight of the realm ‑ was halted at the last minute. There are now two inquiries into whether top executives interfered to prevent the airing of the BBC’s dirty laundry. Last week a new scandal emerged with a terrible symmetry: Newsnight did another investigation into separate allegations of pedophilia at a Welsh children’s home. It said the pedophile was a “very senior Conservative politician of the Thatcher era” and more or less pointed the way to the Web, where the said politician was identified as Sir George McAlpine, the party treasurer for much of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as leader of the Conservative Party.

But the identification was wrong. McAlpine is not a pedophile. Newsnight, within a couple of weeks, had thus failed to expose a real pedophile and instead exposed a false one. Entwistle, when called to explain himself, first to a select committee of Members of Parliament and then on “Today,” the widely heard morning radio news show, cut a poor figure. He sounded plaintive, revealing an apparent lack of grip on the crisis. Spending Saturday discovering the mood of the members of the BBC Trust, the Corporation’s supervisory body, he found it was sour. A little before 10 in the evening, outside the BBC headquarters off London’s Oxford Street, he took the fall: “In the light of the fact that the director-general is also the editor-in-chief and ultimately responsible for all content … I have decided that the honorable thing to do is to step down from the post of director-general.”

Entwistle was the victim of two displays of bad form ‑ one public, the other bureaucratic.

Publicly, he was revealed as a poor speaker, defensive under attack, unable to carry the fight to his interlocutors. In a culture that has prized, alongside form, rhetoric and public performance in its leaders, he did not impress.

His bureaucratic form is much the more important, for it too is empty. The director-general of the BBC is also the editor-in-chief of all its vast output of journalism ‑ from tens of national TV and radio channels, scores of local radio stations, the global World Service radio and TV channels and the hugely popular website. No one can do the job of running the Corporation and know a hundredth of what is being broadcast in his name. Whereas the editor of a newspaper can be expected to know the main stories his paper is carrying and understand which are potentially trouble, Entwistle had not even read, nor been told about, the growing realization that the McAlpine identification was wrong. He pleaded with his interlocutors to understand – he had been preparing and giving a speech and so missed the newspaper that carried it; he was terribly busy being director-general. But he was the editor-in-chief: He had to know.

“Editor-in-chief” was, in fact, just a form. That it had remained as an empty title was the lead weight that drowned him. It’s a pity, since he is by common testimony a decent and intelligent man who had been a talented and forceful manager. It’s much more of a pity for the BBC, tormented by the tabloid press, halfway through a program of staff cuts, lashed by its own journalists for whom going big on the story with large expressions of horror, not always within the boundaries of neutrality, is a sign of journalistic integrity.

It made one bad mistake, on McAlpine. Ironically, the original decision not to run the program on Savile was probably correct in journalistic procedure: The witness/victims might have been wrong (they weren’t), like the one who wrongly identified McAlpine was. Newsnight, determined to show its investigative muscle was not slack, rushed the McAlpine report, failing to check the allegations or run them by their main subject, hiding behind the fact that they had not actually named him. McAlpine should get damages, because it was bad. But the BBC is not and will not be destroyed because, as a whole, it’s too good.

What must come of this is that the editor-in-chief of one of the largest journalistic institutions in the world should, well, chiefly edit. He or she should do news and current affairs, and nothing but. The buck stops there.

For that to happen, we British must learn more properly to distinguish between form and substance ‑ and choose the latter. Not doing so lands us, sooner or later, into the sort of mess that, with our customary weakness for the dramatic, we make into a Shakespearean tragedy.

PHOTO: BBC director general George Entwistle walks past assembled members of the media, after appearing before a Culture and Media Committee hearing at Parliament in London October 23, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

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