The British love form. Not for nothing the phrases “good form” and “bad 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.