What the BBC must do next

“Events, dear boy, events.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s oft-quoted answer when asked what he most feared as a politician seems worth dusting down when considering the departure of the BBC’s Director-General George Entwistle less than two months into his job. Running the UK’s largest media company comes with numerous challenges, but no-one was prescient enough to predict that the vile abuses of a BBC TV personality from the 1970s would ultimately have spiralled into a crisis that has led to Entwistle’s demise, with other big hitters likely to follow. The BBC, incredibly, has gone in a matter of weeks from a much-loved national institution, basking in the glow of a triumphal summer Olympics, to an organisation in meltdown, beset by crisis upon crisis.

I commented at the time that the BBC may have been over-cautious in appointing Entwistle. No points for prescience there, but I did observe that in his role he would be facing many tough battles. Now it becomes clearer than ever that being editor-in-chief of one of the world’s leading suppliers of content is a virtually impossible job on its own, before you add to that the innumerable responsibilities of running a company with more than 20,000 employees and millions of stakeholders. Winston Churchill once told Lord Reith, perhaps the most revered Director-General of all, that running the BBC was the biggest job in the country. It hasn’t got any easier.

In the last week or so we have had the unedifying spectacle of the BBC’s enemies – from Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail through to a ragbag of rent-a-gob politicians and even BBC employees with an axe to grind – queuing up to put the boot in. For those of us who usually stand up for the BBC, just as unedifying is the knowledge that these critics, this time, have a point. The worst things about the BBC – its sense of entitlement, its layers of unnecessary bureaucracy, its indulgent internal politicking, a sense that it is above criticism – have been embodied in the inept handling of recent events. We must hope that the things the BBC does better than just about anyone else in the world – making great content, building great digital experiences, and providing millions globally with a free and fair source of news – can continue.

While this story dominates the news in the UK, there are implications for the media industry beyond the UK. The BBC has been a global leader in the move to a digital future, through initiatives such as iPlayer and through its websites: Others who look to the BBC for a lead may look elsewhere in future. For other news organisations, this dent in the BBC’s reputation will remind them that creating relevant and important journalism in the age of Twitter is a huge challenge, but more vital than ever.

But perhaps the lessons are also universal for any organisation in the public eye about the importance of communication, both internally and externally. Internally it seems that communication broke down between Entwistle and the colleagues who were apparently so pleased by his appointment. Externally, Entwistle’s poor performances in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee and on the BBC’s own news programmes sealed his fate and confirmed the impression of a man – and an organisation – caught in the headlights.

The BBC will survive, but must change. The Culture Secretary must help it find a new structure with a new board (with a new chair, please, given Lord Patten’s clear lack of authority), a new CEO to handle the long-term strategy and dealings with the Government (Ed Richards from Ofcom would surely do a good job here), supported by an Editor in Chief with the authority to bang heads internally and externally. And let’s get it done quickly, please, before even more difficult questions about the BBC’s very raison d’etre start to gain momentum.


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