THE resignation of George Entwistle as Director-General of the BBC should have sent a powerful signal that the corporation was dealing competently with the crisis of confidence in its editorial standards.
Instead, the payment of a year's salary to Mr Entwistle has caused further controversy. For many licence fee payers, the 12-month pay-off to someone who was Director-General for only 53 days is further evidence that the BBC treats its public funding too carelessly. The situation was not helped by the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, suggesting that the £450,000 paid to the hapless Mr Entwistle when his contract required only six months' payment, was "justified and necessary" as part of an agreed resignation. Had he been sacked, he would have been entitled to 12 months' notice.
It is a development that has made a bad situation worse. Criticism of the size of the payout by MPs on both sides of the House of Commons yesterday put additional pressure on Mr Entwistle to take only six months' salary. Since the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has given the National Audit Office clearance to examine whether the payment represents value for money, he would be wise to do so.
He was barely in the job when he was engulfed by the furore over the decision not to broadcast the claims made against Jimmy Savile. That was his misfortune. There can be no doubt, however, that the subsequent airing of mistaken allegations about a senior Tory, who was not identified but whose name was circulating on the internet, was a serious error by the remaining Newsnight executives. It was extraordinary that neither editorial nor legal oversight demanded that the person accused was approached. Perhaps that was the result of the most experienced executives having been sidelined pending the investigation into the shelving of the programme about Savile.
The failings, however, did not end with those involved in the programme. It was vital that the new Director-General, as editor-in-chief, was aware of any new investigation into the sensitive area of child abuse. No doubt his in-tray was piled high but his new responsibilities required him to ensure his lieutenants kept him informed. There is an argument for separating the roles of chief executive of the corporation and editor-in-chief. Certainly it was clear even before the public condemnation yesterday of "over-management" by one of the BBC's most experienced presenters, David Dimbleby, that the chain of accountability was neither entirely clear nor sufficiently robust.
Mr Entwistle's resignation was necessary. For a cleansing of the stables sufficiently thorough to restore the confidence of licence fee payers in the integrity of the BBC, Newsnight should also be brought to an end. Unfair as this may seem on the high quality of its investigations and interviews, a fresh start is required if future exposés are not to be tainted.
With their appointee as Director-General found so severely wanting, there must also now be questions about the effectiveness of the BBC Trust and Lord Patten. He must now ensure the acting Director-General, Tim Davie, puts in place the clear chain of accountability he has promised as the first step to restoring the BBC's reputation as one of the world's most reliable and impartial broadcasters of news and current affairs.
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