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I Believe Entwistle Is Right

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My instant verdict on George Entwistle - the BBC Director General - after his appearance before our committee today is of a good, decent man, new to the job, grappling with the BBC's horrendous bureaucracy who has been badly let down by others, and may still be being so.

I am not one of those who are critical of Entwistle's decision not to ask the Head of News, Helen Boaden, more questions when she mentioned at a pre-Christmas lunch last year that Newsnight were investigating Savile. Entwistle is quite right to say, that as Head of Vision back then, he had to maintain a Chinese Wall between him - responsible for TV scheduling - including the Savile tributes - and the news division and their Newsnight investigation. Anything more than that and he would stand accused today of having interfered in the editorial independence of BBC News.

This may be difficult for others to understand or accept, including those who are used to less formal practices of other news organisations, but as someone who worked for the BBC and who cares about its editorial integrity - I believe Entwistle here is right.

Far more serious for the new Director General and the BBC as a whole is how they have handled, or, rather mishandled the Newsnight investigation and the crisis that has engulfed them in the last few weeks. Entwistle would have helped himself and the BBC if he had acknowledged at the beginning of his evidence, in response to a direct question from our Chairman, John Whittingdale, that the BBC's handling of the affair has been abysmal. He implied as much by what he went on to say, but an immediate mea culpa at the beginning of his appearance would have got it off to a better start.

The most serious questions left from Entwistle's evidence are for the BBC's News management. What exactly was the nature of the conversations between Peter Rippon, the now removed Newsnight editor and the Head of News, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Steve Mitchell. We were told they both discussed the dropping of the Newsnight investigation with Rippon but that he hadn't formally referred the decision up to them. What was the nature of those conversations?

Did they (Boaden and Mitchell) express a view to Rippon as to whether he should drop or proceed with the report? If the former, that constitutes pressure from above, which up until now, the BBC has denied.

Equally worrying has been the inability of the BBC - a huge organisation with a lot of very well paid managers - to assemble the facts quickly so that Entwistle is in a position to act on them. The basic priority of managing a crisis in any organisation is to get the facts fast. Yet we still don't know why it took three weeks for the BBC boss class to admit that Rippon's account was wrong. Even now, Entwistle appeared uncertain as to whether he could rely on the current BBC version of events, which has been changing from hour to hour. He, by all accounts, was a superb editor of Newsnight, whose job it was to assemble facts on controversial and complicated matters quickly and accurately.

Helen Boaden made her name on Radio 4's excellent and forensic File on 4. Panorama have been able to find the truth - or a lot of - in days. It is surely not beyond the wit and ability of the BBC to have assembled an accurate account of what happened over the Newsnight fiasco by now?

At least the BBC is not repeating the mistake they made with the Gilligan scandal by sticking to a position long after it's been discredited. That did, to correct John Simpson, lead to the biggest crisis for the BBC in 50 years, including the loss of the BBC's Director General and its Chairman.

Entwistle's priority now must be to establish the facts as soon as possible (assuming he doesn't already have them) and not to wait for the independent Pollard inquiry to report in December. As the BBC top boss, he needs the facts and he needs to act on them. After all, that's what he and his team at Newsnight did, day in day out, in its heyday.