The monster devours itself: reflections on the maelstrom at the BBC


Perhaps the greatest irony of George Entwistle's resignation from the BBC is that he was effectively felled by one of his own broadcasters.

For it was John Humphrys' ferocious grilling of the former director general on Radio Four's Today programme that finally made his position appear untenable.

Let us step back for a moment and consider the bigger picture. Yes, there is no doubt that Newsnight's failure to broadcast its original investigation into Jimmy Savile's grotesque behaviour was – with hindsight, and probably with wise foresight, too – a massive mistake. Yes, it is clear that the more recent Newsnight broadcast implicating Lord McAlpine was a failure of elementary journalistic practice. Yes, it certainly appeared from George Entwistle's responses to John Humphrys' questions that he was not completely on top of everything.

And yet – when I switched on the radio that evening and heard that Mr Entwistle had resigned, did the story really merit roughly nine minutes of the main ten-minute Radio Four news that night? Was everything else which happened that day to the rest of the world's seven billion inhabitants really so insignificant that it could be squashed into the remaining sixty seconds or so?

It would not matter so much if both the timings in that news bulletin and the manner of John Humphrys' interview were one-off, standalone events. But they are not. Instead, it is arguable they are part of a wider pattern of news broadcasting which should make us, the viewers and listeners, sit up and ask some questions.

When it comes to the selection of news, perhaps we should ask ourselves more often why a particular story has been given priority, and whether the emphasis given to it is genuinely merited. "Is this really the most important news in the whole wide world today?" is not a bad question to ask. Then we might ask whether the time allocated to it is truly justified – especially when pre-recorded reports are followed by long-winded live interviews with journalists or others which often add little – except repetition and speculation.

The hectoring tone of some news interviews should certainly cause us concern. Questions can be more about finding fault than finding facts. The manner in which they are posed can itself imply guilt and cover-up in a situation, when neither is the case. Many interviewees – including I suspect George Entwistle – will perform poorly under pressure not because they are dishonest or incompetent, but because temperamentally they struggle to cope with the aggressive interview style. George Entwistle is widely held to be a good, gifted man, and it can be contended his departure was premature – both because the facts of the situations with which he was grappling are still far from clear, and also because just weeks into his job he had barely had time to learn the ropes.

The truth is that news broadcasts reflect our post-Christian culture: the loss of much courtesy and kindness from society affects the way interviews are conducted. The loss of an eternal perspective removes an over-arching framework within which day-by-day events can be put in a proper context. Furthermore, as human beings we have a wonderful, God-given in-built sense of justice. Yet when we forget our accountability before God, our tendency is to turn on one another – judging each other, often harshly. In a nutshell, the news is not only about human beings who are sinful; the values and decisions which shape its presentation to us are affected by sin as well, and we do well to remember that as we watch, listen and read.

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