An inmate’s view of the asylum known as the BBC


By Kenneth Roy
Since that strange man John Reith founded the BBC, his successors as director-general have not been a distinguished lot. Some have seemed miscast in broadcasting. Several would have died of fright if they had been put in front of a camera. A few were just frights.
The latest, Mark Thompson, has emigrated to Manhattan with a brief to restore the fortunes of the New York Times. The owners of the paper, desperate to get it online profitably, took one look at the figures for the BBC news website and hired Mr Thompson, apparently divining some mysterious connection between the two products. Anyway, off he’s gone.

A Mr Entwistle has replaced him. I know very little about him, except that it would be hard to imagine anyone getting off to a worse start in a new job, with the obvious exception of poor Craig Levein. It was Mr Entwistle’s misfortune to take over on the brink of the scandal. It was not his fault that the talentless lech was exposed before the new DG’s feet were under the table. But if the baffled licence-payers – service users as we are known in some quarters – were looking for an adroit response to the crisis, they needn’t have bothered knocking on Mr Entwistle’s door. He was drowning, not waving.

First there was not much reaction to speak of. Then the DG announced that there would be an independent inquiry, but not until the police had completed their own inquiries, conveniently postponing the evil day of reckoning for many months. When the headlines got blacker by the hour he felt obliged to issue an assurance that ‘no stone will be left unturned’ in the search for the truth.

I have a better idea. Instead of leaving no stone unturned, let’s leave no turn unstoned, starting with Mr Entwistle and his use of the stalest cliché in the book. In pursuit of the truth, the DG put through a call to Pacific Quay, summoning Ken MacQuarrie, director of Beebus Scotticus, to conduct what was described as an ‘informal’ inquiry. Very little has been heard of Mr MacQuarrie since. Perhaps he is looking under stones, muttering imprecations in Gaelic, hoping to turn up something or other.

There came wind of a second inquiry covering the ground that Mr MacQuarrie’s first inquiry was said to be concerned with: the censorship of Liz MacKean’s ‘Newsnight’ investigation. Nick Pollard, the former head of Sky News, has been drafted in for the purpose. Some newspapers are calling it, rather grandly, The Pollard Review. Let’s hope it’s repeated on BBC2.

Now there is to be yet another inquiry, commissioned by Mr Entwistle into his organisation’s ‘culture’ – a culture which allowed Savile to abuse under-age girls on the BBC’s premises, under the nose of line managers. This one looks impressive; it is to be led by a former High Court judge, Dame Janet Smith. There is, however, some doubt that Dame Janet will be starting work immediately. Evidently the BBC’s ‘culture’ cannot be examined until specific allegations of criminality against Savile have been dealt with. I wonder why. The BBC is extemporising, badly.

Mr Thompson’s last word before he left to save the New York Times was that he had never heard of rumours about Savile: he was unaware of any whiff of scandal. Slightly in advance of the pantomime season, Mr Thompson has taken his leave with the risible cry of ‘Ho, ho, ho’ ringing in his ears. But I believe him. It does not surprise me that, like a Spanish waiter once employed by Basil Fawlty, he knew nothing. No director-general would dream of going to work in the morning without a paper bag over his head. Judging by his response to the Savile revelations, Mr Entwistle’s was firmly in place from day one.

What is true of the director-general is also true further down the line. A small example from personal experience may help to illustrate a general truth about the BBC’s bureaucracy. For a few years in the 1980s, I presented two primetime TV programmes on BBC Scotland: the political slot on Friday evening, first with George Reid, then on my own; and the religious current affairs thing on Sunday evening. They were high profile, they got biggish audiences, and they made their presenter vulnerable to the pressure and outright bullying of powerful people.

Throughout this period, my only contact with the BBC was with the programme producers. I never met a single member of the higher management; I was scarcely aware of their existence. The controller at the time was, by reputation, a pig farmer from Aberdeenshire called Pat. If this Pat person had walked into the programme office I wouldn’t have recognised him. He was entirely remote from my existence, just as I was entirely remote from his. We belonged to different worlds.

The idea that the supreme functionaries have more than a detached interest in the presenter class is mostly fiction. Dame Janet needs to appreciate this if she is to appreciate the nature of the culture. The only exception in my time was Alastair Hetherington, a controller of BBC Scotland who never disguised his interest in journalism and journalists, and who got fired as soon as London wised up.

So it is only too likely that Mark Thompson knew nothing. His knowing nothing is, of course, a symptom of the endemic problem. If Dame Janet wishes to understand how this disgraced organisation operates, she should ponder why a serious frontline broadcaster of the quality of Paxman or Dimbleby has never been allowed to be its director-general. She should also watch Liz MacKean’s latest report for ‘Newsnight’, which ends with the chilling statement that, according to her employers, her earlier exposé was banned ‘for editorial reasons’. Orwell, thou shoudst be living at this hour.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review