The BBC: from Elmore Leonard to PepsiCo

Despite all the preparation Entwistle fell because he wasn’t ready for what happened when Mark Thompson vacated that chair.

There is a scene at the beginning of Elmore Leonard’s “Freaky Deaky” where Chris Mankowski, a bomb disposal specialist on his very last shift gets called out to rescue a hard man called Booker. Booker is trapped on a chair, beneath which there is a bomb. If he gets up the bomb goes off. He has been making life hell for a lot of people for a long time but as he sits there all he can do is complain about how unfair it all is and moan to Mankowski about all the people who let him down. Mankowski needs a clear head and goes into the garden to get a break. A moment later the house explodes. “We believe…” Mankowski’s statement reads “…the deceased attempted to outrun a substance that explodes at the rate of fifteen thousand feet per second and didn’t make it.”

If Mark Thompson had been sitting in that chair you have to believe he would have made it.

Thompson came to the BBC to steady an organisation shaken by fallout from the Hutton Inquiry, but under his guidance the BBC was injured by more internal strife and self inflicted wounds than anyone could have imagined possible before he took over. Each new trauma foreshadowed yet another flood of process and regulation that displaced, wherever possible the right and the ability of producers to think for themselves. Never once did he accept responsibility for what was going on. It was under Thompson that the culture changed from one where you took educated risks to one where you ticked all the boxes or else got the sack, because for Thompson failure was intolerable and bad publicity was worse.

But when you terrorise the people who work for you and overwhelm them with paper work because you don’t trust them you set a course for disaster. It is precisely this intolerance and fear of the newspapers that led the BBC to where is it now. I have met both George Entwistle and Mark Thompson in a professional capacity and I am saddened at what happened to Entwistle. I found Thompson overbearing and egotistical. George Entwistle neither. He is also a very different man from the public face we’ve become familiar with in recent weeks.

On Radio 4 (12th November 2012) David Dimbleby suggested to John Humphreys that George Entwistle lacked the pugnacity to do the job; an idea that is beyond credibility. As editor of News Night when it was at its peak and squeaky clean to boot, Entwistle’s editorial judgement was sound. You simply don’t get to be top dog in an office filled with people like Humphreys and Dimbleby or in fact Paxman if you have a feint heart. Don’t kid yourself that these people are easy. They would slice and dice any one of us in public with comfort and ease if the moment seemed right for it yet Entwistle proved he had the guts to handle them and do it with skill. Throughout his career Entwistle made big decisions under pressure and got them all right which was precisely why he was groomed to be the next Director General. Spirited away from journalism and rapidly promoted to head of (tele)vision he was there for barely a year before Thompson left and he landed the top job in british broadcasting (Archbishops take note!).

Despite all the preparation Entwistle fell because he wasn’t ready for what happened when Mark Thompson vacated that chair. Journalists spend their lives pointing to the flaws in others and rarely if ever do they need to defend themselves in public. While many of them believe they have Alistair Campbell’s devilish talent for PR, a quick look over the shoulder at the countless dire appearances in front of Levinson proves otherwise.

But Entwistle is a thoughtful man, less inclined to shoot his own staff from the hip than his predecessor was. That is why I had high hopes he might begin to return the BBC to a place where intelligent people would be allowed space to think for themselves. Sadly not. When the spotlight turned on him his undoubted qualities looked like weaknesses.  Enter Tim Davie.

I met Tim too on a few occasions during my time in the BBC. Like Entwistle, he always struck me as decent but he is not a “BBC man”. He has never made a programme let alone filed a report, and some august journalists might have a problem with that. I say let them grumble. The BBC doesn’t need anymore bruisers at the top. What it needs now, more than ever is a leader who understands subtlety. Davie and Greg Dyke before him are the only senior, London based, BBC managers who I ever heard refer to the corporation’s work outside the capital as “what we do in… (fill in as appropriate)”. The rest favour the Pontius Pilate with a bargepole phrasing of “What our colleagues do in…”. That may seem like splitting hairs but the point is that Davy understands the nuance of language in a way that most journalists and managers do not.

Whatever else happens to the organisation in the near future my bet is that it will at least look like it knows what it is doing because the BBC, still the most prestigious news gathering organisation in the world, is now being run by the former Vice President for Marketing at PepsiCo.