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BBC Resignations - The Employment Law Issues

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George Entwistle's resignation as director general of the BBC after less than eight unhappy weeks at the helm highlights a number of issues about employment, management and leadership.

Employment first. The consensus seems to be that Entwistle is a decent and honourable man, with a career of loyal service. He has been extremely unlucky to be faced with so many crises to handle so soon after his appointment. Public sympathy for his misfortune may, though, be tempered if the scale of his exit package is as high as initial reports suggest.

The unfortunate reality is that anyone who listened to his interview with John Humphreys on the Today programme could be forgiven for concluding that Entwistle had been over-promoted. Whatever his management skills at a lower (though senior) level, he simply did not sound like a leader. To his credit, he almost certainly realised this himself. There is a crucial difference between leadership and management, as the sorry Newsnight saga has shown.

Time and again, employers fail to appreciate the gulf between being a good second-in-command (or even lower in the hierarchy) and being able to handle the pressures and responsibilities at the top of the tree. Over-promoting an employee does the person, as well as the organisation, a disservice. Some good sidekicks make good CEOs. But many do not.

If Entwistle was over-promoted, that in turn raises questions about the judgment of those who appointed him. Lord Patten, as chair of the BBC Trust, is bound to continue to face difficult questions, and calls for him to resign as well. Of course, as he has pointed out, some of his fiercest critics are to be found in rival media organisations. Their glee at the BBC's discomfort is scarcely hidden. That said, it is difficult to understand why, if Patten knew about the potentially incendiary Newsnight programme which led to Entwistle's downfall, he did not alert Entwistle to it.

Patten did, however, at least show some leadership (and the benefit of his political experience) by touring the TV studios in -considering the scale of the problems he is dealing with - robust style. He is plainly a savvier and more formidable character than Entwistle, and may prove to be more of a survivor.

The botched investigation into claims about child abuse in a North Wales care home broadcast by Newsnight was a fiasco which should never have happened. Even if the BBC felt under pressure to run the programme after the outcry over the failure to run an earlier investigation about Jimmy Savile, it should have resisted that pressure until the story had been properly checked. Reports have suggested that lawyers did not advise against running the North Wales story, and if that is true, the legal advice will need to scrutinised.

The BBC is not alone in having blundered. The trustees of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have said that they are "appalled" by the part the Bureau seems to have played in the calamity, and according to a report in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/12/bbc-boss-plans-rebuild-trust?INTCMP=SRCH, the Bureau may now face a fight for its very survival. Yet the Guardian itself is not untouched - its columnist George Monbiot has had to issue an apology for his tweets referring to the innocent man who was pilloried by the investigation. Other prominent individuals who jumped on the bandwagon with excited, gossipy tweets were equally unwise. The trouble with an age of instant comment, instantly transmitted anywhere, is that harmful mistakes are easy to make and hard to correct.

No doubt Lord McAlpine's lawyers will be busy as he seeks legal redress for the harm that has been done to him. But in the midst of the furore, the victims of child abuse should not be forgotten. Their personal tragedies still deserve to be investigated thoroughly, not shoddily. The investigators owe them nothing less. So do those responsible for showing leadership to the investigators.

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