Newsnight debacle: BBC is no good at investigative journalism

Nov 12, 2012

Former Today editor says BBC needs decent journalists to run the show instead of 'grey legions'

THE extraordinary encounter between John Humphrys and George Entwistle on the Today programme on Saturday morning and the subsequent resignation of the BBC's beleaguered Director General, has unleashed a torrent of criticism, advice and soul-searching.

The BBC has a problem with investigative journalism – it doesn't really understand how to do it, says Rod Liddle, a former editor of the Radio 4 Today programme, writing in The Sunday Times. It was true of the David Kelly affair in 2008, and it was true of the abandoned Jimmy Savile investigation and the "absurd" Newsnight report on 2 November which wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine in child abuse. "It does not do the proper checks; it is insufficiently rigorous," says Liddle. "This is easy to change: put decent journalists in editorial positions, rather than the grey legions that run the place now.

Veteran broadcaster and Question Time host David Dimbleby offered a scathing assessment of BBC management in an interview with Radio 4's Today. "In my opinion it [the BBC] is still over managed and the managers speak gobbledegook. Any editor or head of department spends their lives filling in forms and answering questions that are not necessary, using language that is so arcane like 'platforms' and 'genres'," he said. "Even George Entwistle was called head of vision – which nobody in the outside world understands – [why not] head of television? It has gone bonkers."

Jeremy Paxman, the Newsnight anchor, issued a brief statement supporting George Entwistle and saying the former Director General had been "brought low by cowards and incompetents". The big problem, he said, was the BBC's decision, in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, to play safe by appointing "biddable" people. They compounded the problem by enforcing editorial budget cuts, while bloating the management. "That is how you arrive at the current mess on Newsnight. I very much doubt the problem is unique to that programme. I had hoped that George might stay to sort this out."

George Entwistle's job title was always going to make life difficult, says Dan Sabbagh, head of media and technology at The Guardian. It's one of the "curiosities" of the corporation that its Director General is also its editor-in-chief. "The secondary job title, only ever remembered in moments of crisis, does foster the unhelpful image of the DG spending half their time wandering around the newsroom wearing a green eyeshade, as well as being chief executive of one of the world's biggest broadcasters." Sabbagh says it would be an "impossible task" for one person to keep an eye on the 425,320 hours of TV and radio it broadcast last year.

Political commentator Janet Daley says the Newsnight debacle is the result of an "incestuous, complacent and bizarrely amateurish" editorial culture within the BBC. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Daley says she has turned down frequent requests to appear on Newsnight because the proposed debates appeared "so absurdly contrived, so over-produced and pre-scripted, and often so ill-judged in news terms, that I could not consider taking part."

Former Panorama reporter John Ware came to the defence of BBC journalism in The Guardian saying it "routinely illuminates areas of our national life" at every level and does it with "a care and precision unmatched by other media outlets... On any objective view, the BBC is overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding. And this really is the point. The Newsnight debacle is an aberration."

We await the Leveson report and its expected proposals for statutory control of the press, writes Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times, but the Newsnight debacle raises the question – what about policing the internet? "If it is necessary to devise laws to prevent a printed newspaper from publishing something that is neither defamatory nor obtained by illegal means, what is the argument against applying the same measures against Twitter or Google?" Lawson says Twitter and other social media sites are where "filth is being spread around" and innocent people are accused of child abuse. Yet nothing is being done about it, he says.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture committee, told The Guardian the size of George Entwistle's payout needed to be justified. "A lot of people will be very surprised that somebody who was in the job for such a short period of time and then had to leave in these circumstances should be walking away with £450,000 of licence fee payers' money," the Conservative MP said. "Certainly I would want to know from the Trust why they think that's appropriate. I find it very difficult to see a justification for that amount of money to be paid to somebody who has had to resign in these circumstances."

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, London mayor Boris Johnson says the BBC crisis should not distract attention from the harm done to Lord McAlpine by the Newsnight program. Writes Johnson: "It's tragic for us! say Beeb journalists, who are all interviewing each other in a ludicrous orgy of self-pity. In all this nauseating navel-gazing and narcissism, there seems to be no one – from Lord Patten downwards – who appears to be remotely interested in the person the BBC has injured. Has anyone even begun to apologise, in a fitting manner, to Alistair McAlpine?"

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