The Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle, went before a select committee of MPs at Westminster recently, arising from concerns about what had become known in the UK as ‘The Jimmy Savile’ affair. It was an unedifying event, part showboating, part inept and ill-informed interrogation
Do you know what a chief brewer, a chief engineer, a chief chemist, or a chief journalist does? Outside a specific business sector, the labels are misleading. Each designation refers to a head of a group of professionals within an organisation. These are important leadership roles. The more generic label for the role is that of COO or Chief Operating Officer, which is a director level function. A COO has ultimate responsibility for the professional operations in a company, including line-management responsibility for the effective functioning of more junior professionals.
A conflation of roles
In some organisations, the role of COO gets mixed up with that of the better-known one of CEO or chief executive officer. For example, at the BBC, George Entwistle turns out to be chief journalist, and also its Director General, bringing with it responsibilities roughly approximating to those of the CEO more common in in private sector organisations.
The Jimmy Savile affair
Jilly Savile, a high profile TV personality over a period of decades, famed for the long-runing children’s programme Jim’ll fix it. Since his death in 2011, stories had begun to leak out over alleged child molestation within the BBC, but also extending far more widely. He had been knighted for services to charitable causes, although his charity work had become seen in hindsight as a cover for more sinister and predatory activities.
A potential cover up
The story had been broken by a TV programme from ITV which told of a possible cover-up at the rival state-owned BBC, which had cancelled a planned investigative piece on Savile being prepared for its Newsnight programme. The decision appeared to have been for influenced by a wider tribute to Savile which was imminent, and which was under preparation as a Christmas special.
The Director General gets embroiled
The newish Director General George Entwistle would always have been embroiled. But Entwistle had also been an editor of Newsnight at the time of another BBC debacle involving the documentation of Weapons of Mass Destruction during the Iraq war. More pertinently, he had also been head of the broader division at the BBC [‘Vision’] when the Newsnight piece on Savile was being prepared.
A few days before he was called before the committee, there was another twist to the story. The current Newsnight editor Peter Rippon wrote in the BBC’s ‘Editors blog’ justifying the editorial decision he made to stop the broadcasting of the Savile item.
However, by then, investigations into the Savile affair ordered by Entwistle had begun internal to the BBC. Rippon’s blog was re-corrected’ . and Peter Rippon went on a spell of gardening leave.
At the committee hearing
At the committee hearing, The Director General repeatedly explained that he had been aware of a dilemma of leadership: either to get involved in the operational details [as chief journalist] or remain disinterested as Director General, a backstop ‘above’ those who might eventually have to be evaluated for their operational decisions.
His performance gave the committee members opportunity to work up a head of righteous indignation about Entwistle’s ineffectiveness, The committee seemed to consider his approach” lacking of curiosity. Several of the MPs used the term, which suggested that rather extensive discussions had taken place in advance, and that consensus had been reached.
Not enough like Archie
Archie Norman, former CEO of a retailing organisation, was held up as an example of a hands-on leader, famed for ‘getting on to the shop floor’ . This fitted the prevailing ‘map’ of the MPs better than the more nuanced view being offered them by Entwistle.
The performances seemed to smack of showboating. Perhaps the interrogation of the Director General could have shown some flicker of understanding about the points he reiterated. It was possible that the MPs were genuinely unable to bridge point he was making at the same time as holding on to their pre-prepared lines of attack.
More charisma needed?
Their posture said it all. The MPs were looking for more charisma in a leader. They would not have behaved in such an inept fashion if they had been leader of the BBC. Or maybe they were in search of a scapegoat for the Savile affair. In either case, it was an unedifying performance.
It is mostly a simplistic notion of what a leader should do when faced with a crisis. He (presumably a he) must immediately and personally show who is in control, even if there is a case for holding back and recognising the dangers of impulsive action which, in this case would deny anyone else at the BBC space to take some leadership responsibilities.
Their view of Entwistle’s performance and competence was mostly echoed in the press the following day.