The inexcusable humiliation of George Entwistle

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By Kenneth Roy

Here is a story at my own expense. I was probably the only journalist in the country who was unaware of the identity of the senior Tory politician until his name appeared on the BBC’s news website towards the end of last week. My first reaction was one of disappointment and anti-climax. Lord Who? The name meant a little. The face meant nothing. It didn’t mean a lot to Steve Messham either.

There were many reasons for my state of ignorance. I am not a personal user of Twitter and barely know how it functions, so I missed all the incriminating messages. On the Friday evening when the story broke, I was not watching Newsnight; I was either ‘out’ (just as Mr Entwistle was ‘out’, though we were not out together) or already in bed. I was unfamiliar with the blog of George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist who was among the first to point the finger at his lordship, although I have now read his apology, a work of self-flagellation rarely surpassed in modern times. I try to avoid the Speaker’s wife and other sources of mischief. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the BBC’s partner in the fatal enterprise, sounded ridiculous enough to be the stuff of satirical fiction, complete with a reporter rejoicing in the name A Stickler. Then there was the instinctive Scottish mistrust of metropolitan hysteria.

These were the main reasons for my state of ignorance; also I was just not interested enough to pick up the phone and find out. But at one point in the week of intense speculation I did the shameful thing, selected a name from the past about whom there had been persistent rumours over the years – a rather more important figure than Lord McAlpine – and entered it in a search engine. Sure enough all sorts of horrible stuff about him came floating up from an internet sewer.

It was striking – and shocking – how many other well-known names were smeared in filth in the same sewer; it seemed that if you were a male politician in the Thatcher era – or, indeed, later – you ran the risk of being branded a child abuser. With so many fantasists swilling around down there, eager to destroy characters and reputations, it is a mystery why anyone enters public life at all.

That admirable broadcaster Gerry Priestland, who belonged to a vanished era of BBC reporting, said that the gutter is where journalists belong because the gutter is where the powerful keep their guilty secrets. How true. And I suppose that is what the BBC and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism thought they were doing: digging around in the gutter, a respectable journalistic activity. But they ended up somewhere else; they found themselves in the sewer, scarcely more reliable than the vile bloggers who hide behind their pseudonyms.

By Friday night, I felt less bad about being probably the only journalist in Britain who hadn’t known the identity of the mystery man. Suddenly the BBC, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, George Monbiot and the Speaker’s wife, among many others, were exposed for their folly. Never has so much hubris been exhausted so rapidly, leaving many of the biggest names in the UK media looking like mugs. It will be good for their souls, assuming they have any.

George Entwistle was duly confirmed as the chief object of ridicule and derision. The director-general had again taken his eye off the ball, going out for the evening when he should have been glued to Newsnight, writing a speech when he should have been reading the front page of the Guardian with its disclosure of his lordship as a victim of mistaken identity. But Mr Entwistle’s biggest mistake – a really awful misjudgement – was agreeing to be interviewed by John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme last Saturday morning. What on earth possessed him to do it? Who advised him? If anything was doomed to end in tears, it was this misadventure. His career crashed in 16 minutes.

I listened to the interview as it was going out live until I could endure it no longer and switched it off; later in the day I heard it again in its painful entirety. Mr Humphrys has been universally lauded for finishing off his own boss, leaving him for dead. The chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten, who has deluded himself into the dangerous belief that the attacks on his organisation are orchestrated by the Murdoch press, told Sky News that this was ‘the great John Humphrys at his strongest’. I disagree. It was inexcusably brutal and cruel; it was deeply and personally humiliating. If Chris Patten sincerely believes that this was an example of strong journalism, he and his mates have learned less than nothing from the Newsnight fiasco.

I found a comment from the BBC’s media correspondent enlightening. He said that members of the BBC Trust – the so-called governing body – had listened to the broadcast and been ‘unimpressed’ by Mr Entwistle’s performance. What are we to take from this? It seems to imply that the trustees were content to have their director-general crucified on air before finally deciding to throw him overboard.

Did this amount to another trial by media – a trial of the BBC’s director-general by his own employers? Had he been dissuaded by his chairman from going anywhere near John Humphrys, as he should have been, his inevitable departure would have been handled in a more dignified and humane way. But that would have been out of character for Auntie. It was also true to form that the most vulnerable people in this saga, the victims of child abuse in north Wales and on the BBC’s own premises, were ignored during the convulsions of the weekend; I did not hear Lord Patten mention them once. It is only through the indulgence of his friends in the Conservative Party that he clings to office. There will be no fresh start as long as he is still around.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review