Crisis at the BBC: Britain’s Public Broadcaster in Turmoil

Its Director General has resigned; some of its most senior staff have stood aside. Who is left to give the BBC the leadership it so badly needs?

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

The BBC headquarters in London on Nov. 12, 2012

Here is the news. On the forecourt of the BBC’s newly revamped central London headquarters, BBC journalists are jostling for elbow room with throngs of competitors. Their prey: the BBC’s managers — those still left in jobs. The storied institution, famed for journalistic excellence and high-quality creative output, is at the center of a media storm. The apparent reassurance from Downing Street — the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron does not believe the BBC is facing an “existential crisis,” said a Downing Street official on Nov. 12 — highlights the damage this storm could do. The BBC will survive, but the organization that emerges could look quite different, some of its familiar features blown away.

The crisis is entirely of the broadcaster’s own making. Allegations last month that the BBC had not only overlooked a pedophile in its midst but also may have inadvertently fostered Jimmy Savile’s predatory career by making him the king of youth presenters highlighted huge historical failures of management. The chain of flawed decisions that last year saw its 32-year-old flagship current-affairs show Newsnight shelve a postmortem investigation into Savile as its entertainment divisions prepared adulatory pap about Savile potentially implicated the management class of 2011, led by former director general Mark Thompson. He exited the BBC just two months ago and is expected to take up a fresh challenge, as the chief executive of the New York Times Co., on Nov. 12.

(MORE: Beyond the BBC — the Jimmy Savile Scandal Grows)

The management of 2012, under the BBC’s new director general, George Entwistle, could have stanched these wounds. Instead, Newsnight on Nov. 2 broadcast claims linking an unnamed Conservative politician from Margaret Thatcher’s era to the abuse of a boy at a children’s home in Wales in the 1970s. The claims were false. The politician, former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Alistair McAlpine — his identity swiftly revealed on the Internet on Nov. 9 — released a statement protesting the “seriously defamatory” allegations. The next morning, Entwistle appeared on the BBC’s other flagship news show, Today. He revealed that, despite being the BBC’s de facto editor in chief, he had not been consulted before Newsnight aired. “The number of things that there are going on in the BBC mean that when something is referred to me and brought to my attention, I engage with it,” he said. During the same day, the subject of Entwistle’s own future was brought to his attention. By that evening, he concluded that stepping down was the only course of action. He had spent just 54 days in the job, a tenure shorter than many celebrity marriages.

Anyone who thinks Entwistle’s resignation will fix the problem fails to understand that the BBC’s talent for turning crises into award-winning dramas is exceeded only by its ability to turn its own dramas into crises. Among a raft of measures announced on Nov. 12 to steady the good ship BBC are a few that might be expected to make her list more dangerously. The BBC’s director of news Helen Boaden and her deputy Steve Mitchell were asked to stand aside for the duration of an internal review into the Savile debacle. Two of the BBC’s most seasoned editorial decisionmakers, they had already been removed from the chain of editorial command on anything concerning coverage of Savile; Newsnight’s false allegations about McAlpine, though in no way involving Savile, were apparently deemed to fall into this category. Newsnight’s long-term editor, Peter Rippon, was also on leave during the review, leaving a stopgap team in charge. Now Boaden’s and Mitchell’s roles are to be filled, temporarily, by two colleagues with extensive and appropriate experience: Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of news gathering, and Ceri Thomas, the editor of Today. Given the recent history of Newsnight, you might think the BBC would pause before moving Thomas out of his key role.

(MORE: Bad News at the BBC)

Today is no stranger to crisis. In 2003, the BBC found itself locked in a battle with the then Labour government over a Today report that Labour spin doctors had “sexed up” the Iraq dossier published to garner support for military action against Saddam Hussein. In January 2004, then director general Greg Dyke fell on his (metaphorical) sword, a day after the resignation of BBC chairman Gavyn Davies. By 2007, the BBC, at that time helmed by Thompson, was engulfed in another series of controversies over slipping editorial standards. But whatever the trigger for these periods of turbulence, two bigger facts are clear. Unlike just about every British institution, including those rushing to savage the BBC now, the political establishment and the print media, the BBC largely retains the trust and affection of the British people. The scandal over British parliamentarians’ misuse of expenses, first uncovered in 2009, continues to rumble on; print journalists find it hard to take the moral high ground after the hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World helped reveal a wider culture of deception and corruption; the police did not emerge unscathed. Within the next few weeks, the Leveson Inquiry into the hacking scandal will publish a report that will make recommendations about how Britain’s press should be regulated. Its detail will do nothing to improve the reputation of the media; the muddled and self-interested responses of politicians to the anticipated content of the report are doing little to improve theirs. The fate of the BBC matters more keenly than ever.

Yet the second and more difficult fact is that the BBC cannot be fixed until it addresses the real root of all the turbulence: its identity crisis.

(MORE: BBC Facing Scandal over Contests)

The BBC is supported by British taxpayers. In return, the broadcaster has sought to provide something for everyone, from news and current affairs to fantasy and drama, from its Olympics coverage to its daily broadcasting of gladiatorial parliamentary debates. It has relentlessly chased young viewers even as that demographic switched off the telly and switched to YouTube. It has sought to more perfectly serve the U.K. populace by investing in spanking new outposts in different parts of the U.K. All of this might make sense in an expansionary environment, where money is no object, but as revenues failed to keep pace with ambitions, Thompson was forced to wield the ax. It will be no surprise if the investigation into Newsnight reveals a story of resources stretched thin. Certainly, the segment that wrongly accused an innocent man of child abuse was made in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization founded to plug a perceived gap left by cutbacks to mainstream news organizations. Outsourcing, however, can pose fresh challenges to editorial-quality control.

Competitors of the BBC, interested in seeing its market size reduced, will hope to exploit its current weakness. Lord Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, under fire for the choice of Entwistle and for agreeing a year’s salary to the departing director general, must face down calls to resign while accelerating the head-hunting process for the next director general. His job is complicated because many of the obvious candidates were rejected in favor of Entwistle earlier this year, and most BBC insiders could be seen as tarnished by the Savile-Newsnight imbroglio even if they were not directly involved. That raises the prospect of the BBC casting its net wider, even to commercial rivals that are themselves part of Britain’s roiling media landscape. The broadcaster already appointed Nick Pollard, a former head of Murdoch’s Sky News, to helm its inquiry into Newsnight’s decision to stop investigating Savile. It may have to look in some unlikely places for the leadership it now needs.