Entwistle ‘disappointed’ by Rippon blog as chain-of-command defence puts focus on Boaden
George Entwistle praised the BBC this week for “asking questions of itself no other media organisation would” – but found himself under severe pressure because of his personal failure to do just that.
The director general provided the Culture, Media and Sport select committee with few answers to crucial questions about how and why the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile was shelved.
But his responses cast major doubts over the position of Newsnight editor Peter Rippon and turned the spotlight on to head of news Helen Boaden. It is likely that her role in the dropping of the Newsnight film and its aftermath will not become clear until the Pollard inquiry reports at the end of November.
Entwistle found himself under fire for his arms-length approach to the scandal and was accused of a “lamentable lack of knowledge” by MPs.
The DG repeatedly explained that an independent external review was the best way to establish why Newsnight’s investigation was shelved. But his lack of curiosity and reliance on BBC procedure and chain of command exasperated the committee.
Damian Collins MP summed up their mood: “There seem to be a lot of very important questions you’ve not asked your colleagues.”
The criticism focused on Entwistle’s lack of direct dealings with Rippon and his fleeting conversation with Boaden.
Entwistle explained that he had assumed Rippon’s account had come from “an editor [with a] full grip on the investigation they were in charge of”, but admitted that had not been the case.
He said he was determined not to become irrecoverably embroiled in the aftermath, which would have resulted in him being unable to exercise the appropriate authority. But the committee was unimpressed by the straitjacket of BBC procedures and Collins had suggested that a situation emerged where “entirely the wrong thing has happened, but all BBC procedures were followed”.
Entwistle, who has been director general since September, admitted he had not seen, heard or read the transcript of Liz Mackean’s Karin Ward interview prior to its Panorama airing, and only became aware it existed a few weeks ago. He also used the phrase “chain of command” several times to draw a distinction between his remit as director of Vision and Boaden’s as head of news.
Entwistle said his dealings with Boaden while Newsnight was working on the story “had the quality of a preliminary conversation – they needed the next stage”, and that he assumed he would have been updated if the story was greenlit to run.
Badly let down
“I’ve been accused of intervening to have the film stopped and of not showing enough interest. I was trying to find the right place on that line… I absolutely didn’t want to do anything that could be construed as showing excessive interest… perhaps I was being oversensitive,” he said.
Former culture secretary Ben Bradshaw suggested that Entwistle had failed in “the most crucial job of a DG” during a crisis – to establish the facts, act decisively and get them out as quickly as possible.
But Entwistle said: “It’s critical the chain of command was observed, keeping the DG in reserve as it were. That’s the way big organisations work.”
Specifically asked by Collins if he was angry when he discovered Rippon’s blog was wrong, Entwistle admitted he was “very disappointed indeed”.
“I would have expected a rawer emotion,” Collins said. “You have been badly let down and exposed.”