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BBC: Resignation of Director-General

Volume 740: debated on Monday 12 November 2012


My Lords, I wish to repeat an answer to an Urgent Question tabled in the other place made by the right honourable Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which is taken as a Statement in your Lordships’ House. The Statement is as follows.

“The BBC is a global British institution, of huge importance and value to millions of licence fee payers and people all over the world who look to it as an exemplar of independent public service broadcasting. In light of the ongoing crisis, it is crucial that the BBC puts the systems in place to ensure it can continue to make the first-class news and current affairs programmes on which its reputation rests.

George Entwistle has taken full responsibility for the failings of “Newsnight” in his role as editor in chief and it was for this reason that he decided to resign yesterday. The circumstances of his departure make it hard to justify the level of severance money that has been agreed. Contractual arrangements are a matter for the BBC Trust but the trust also has clear responsibilities to ensure value for money for the licence fee payer. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has written to the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee outlining why the trust took the decision it did and this letter has been made public.

It is right that the trust should account publicly for that decision. I have repeatedly emphasised the need for full transparency to rebuild public trust. Members will know that there are now in place procedures to scrutinise the BBC’s decisions in terms of delivering value for money—procedures strengthened by the Government. The National Audit Office is empowered to conduct a value-for-money review of any issue. If it decides to review this issue then I expect that the BBC would co-operate fully.

The BBC is in the midst of the most serious of crises. I have made it clear, both publicly and privately, that the trust was slow off the mark in responding to the initial crisis over Savile. It is now acting decisively with three reviews, one of which reported yesterday and the other two ongoing. It is in the long-term interests of the future of the BBC to have a period of stability to see this important work completed.

In my conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, I have been clear that the overall aim of the trust must be to rebuild the public’s trust in the BBC. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, agrees. There are three clear things that the BBC needs to do to achieve that. First, the immediate task for the BBC must be to address whatever failings there have been within the editorial process, particularly in “Newsnight”, to restore public confidence in the BBC. The trust needs to act swiftly to ensure that the management and leadership issues are resolved and that these failings cannot be repeated. It is clear from the interim director-general’s interviews today that the BBC is looking seriously at what went wrong, where responsibility lies and how to address this in the longer term. I welcome this.

Secondly, the trust must get the right director-general in post. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has indicated that he will do this as soon as possible, but above all the trust must get the right candidate to stabilise the BBC and drive through the change that is necessary. As I have said before, the BBC is a global British institution and needs to function effectively and in an exemplary fashion.

Thirdly, we must not lose sight in all this of the inquiries that are at the heart of these events. None of the developments of recent days should overshadow the investigations into the alleged horrendous abuse of children in institutions around the country. It is vital that that the BBC responds correctly and decisively to both Pollard, looking at the decision to drop the “Newsnight” item on Savile, and the Smith inquiry looking at Savile’s abuses and the culture and practices of the BBC.

The BBC is an independent institution and its independence is not and never will be in question. Ultimately, the only organisation that can restore the public’s trust in the BBC is itself”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement this afternoon.

This is, indeed, a serious crisis in an institution which is central to British life and whose output remains much loved and respected both here and abroad. It is vital that we in your Lordships’ House do all that we can to allow the staff and the trust the time they need to rebuild the institution and set it on a forward path. This is why, as parliamentarians, we should tread carefully in how we respond. Although, no doubt, there will be a range of views about the longer term role of the BBC, its internal structures and its governance, I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is not the moment for political point-scoring and micromanagement of the crisis recovery. I would go as far as to argue that we should work towards a cross-party response to the challenges now being confronted.

I hope we will also bear in mind that the real story behind this chain of events is a tragedy of sexual abuse of hundreds of victims by a BBC employee and by sexual predators exploiting vulnerable young children at the north Wales care home. It would be unforgivable if, as a result of this mismanagement, victims felt less able to speak out and be taken seriously. We should also acknowledge the understandable distress which has been inflicted upon Lord McAlpine, a former Member of this House, as a result of the poor journalistic standards displayed by “Newsnight” on this occasion.

We should bear it in mind that this crisis represents a small part of the overall BBC output, estimated to be more than 400,000 hours of TV and radio last year. As we speak, journalists and programme-makers around the country are continuing to deliver a high-quality output of sport, features, light entertainment and award-winning documentaries for which the BBC is rightly famous. The mission to inform, educate and entertain remains at the heart of its identity and purpose. It is vital that its morale and confidence is restored. The problems which the BBC is confronting now are not of the staff’s making; it is a fundamental crisis of management.

While not wanting to prejudge the outcome of the reviews, all the evidence that has appeared so far seems to show an endemic failure of decision-making and leadership. Time and again, there appears to have been a failure to take ownership of editorial issues and a lack of skills to make the important judgment calls. This needs to be addressed urgently, as the leadership reflects upon the lessons of the recent incidents.

In all the circumstances, it was right that George Entwistle should go; I hear what the Minister has said about the action already being taken on the level of his severance. In the mean time, I hope that he would echo our call for George Entwistle himself to reflect upon whether it is appropriate for him to receive that level of severance and to agree to limit the payment to that which is defined in his contract.

Secondly, there needs to be an orderly transition towards the appointment of a new director-general. Does the Minister agree that the new appointment should be made firmly in the context of the lessons learnt from this crisis? In particular, can we be sure, in the light of what we now know, that the job description is the same as before? Does the Minister share my concern about the press reports that the chairman intends to reinterview the failed candidates from the last round of appointments? Is there not a case for a rethink and a wider trawl of potential candidates next time around?

Thirdly, the Secretary of State was quick to take action in the early days of this crisis by writing to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in what some felt to be inappropriate terms. Can the Minister tell the House what further letters, if any, have been sent by the Secretary of State to the BBC? In the light of the concerns, can he confirm that the details of any contact on this issue between the department and the BBC will be made available? Does he agree that the independence of the BBC is paramount and should not become the next victim of this crisis?

Fourthly, does the Minister agree that one way in which the BBC has demonstrated its independence in the past was its determination to pursue difficult issues through its investigative journalism? Does he agree that it would be regrettable if one outcome of this crisis was for the BBC to retreat from great, well researched, courageous journalism?

Finally, will the Minister make it clear that this Government recognise that the BBC is much-loved institution which plays an important role in the culture of this country? Will he and his colleagues commit to standing up for it in the future? Does he agree that the priority now is to support it in recovering the essential qualities of judgment, taste, decency and impartiality, which have been its unique hallmark?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her response. I entirely agree with her and appreciate very much the support she has given and the offer of cross-party support in this most difficult of times for the BBC. I entirely agree with her that we must allow for some stability and some calm, both for the trust and for the executive of the BBC, to allow them to see through these very difficult problems. I also agree entirely that we must not forget the precise issue that we are talking about, which is focused on the sexual abuse of vulnerable and young people. These, and the reasons behind them, are the issues which are to be investigated. It is vitally important that we get to the bottom of these, find out what happened and make some decisions accordingly. Clearly, there has been an endemic failure of leadership within the BBC. I have every confidence that my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes has acted decisively and is making the right decisions to take things forward at this time.

The noble Baroness asked a number of questions. As for the level of severance pay for Mr Entwistle, it is up to him to decide whether he wishes to—how shall I put it?—give any money back that he will be receiving. It is entirely up to him. I agree with the noble Baroness about the job description of the director-general. It is not up to the Government to say what the job description should be and how it should be outlined. That is a matter for the BBC. There could well be a rethink of the job description and a relook at the current candidates. However, I again emphasise that that is a matter for the BBC to decide. We must allow the noble Lord, Lord Patten, to continue to work through these issues. He acted decisively yesterday to put in place a procedure for finding a new permanent director-general. I confirm that details of letters will be made public as and when they arrive.

Finally, I concur with the noble Baroness that the BBC is, indeed, a much loved institution. The priority, in a spirit of cross-party support, is to give every support that we can to the BBC at this time.

My Lords, before we start with the Back-Bench contributions, I will give the usual reminder that, as this is a Statement, noble Lords have the opportunity to make brief comments and questions only.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right to say that this is a matter finally for the BBC to resolve. Certainly, the BBC will survive. That great institution will continue to play an outstanding part in our public life, with the support of all parties in this House. However, Parliament has not served the BBC well in introducing the ludicrous structure of the trust and a separate director-general and his executive board. An all-party Select Committee of this House criticised that proposal at the time. It is now enshrined in a royal charter but it is not impossible to change it. Will the Government give urgent consideration to the mechanics of getting back to a sensible position in which the governors of the BBC are directly involved in issues and the chairman of the BBC has direct responsibility for them, as opposed to this rather remote arm’s-length arrangement? The exact problem about which the committee warned has now occurred.

I take note of what my noble friend said about the structure of the trust and, indeed, of the BBC. However, I believe that now is not the time to review this. As I said earlier, we must have a period of calm and stability to allow the BBC to make the important decisions that it needs to make. The current BBC charter expires on 31 December 2016. As it is a free-standing instrument, changes to the charter cannot be made by Parliament. It is possible to make changes to the charter before that point only with the agreement of the trust itself.

My Lords, the BBC and the trust have a direct responsibility to explore in great detail how sexual abuse could take place in the BBC’s own buildings and under its own culture and aegis. Having said that, let us not forget that the BBC is one of the most outstanding achievements of this country. It is a model to other countries and has a structure that has allowed for balance between different opinions and different views without ever being discouraged from pursuing the truth. It is a great institution and the sooner its management recovers the sense of that, the better for all of us. Having said that, I make one other crucial point. We cannot excuse the BBC Trust completely from the rather unwise judgment it made about the compensation to be paid to a director-general who was in place for two months, or slightly less. For the ordinary citizen in our country that is an extraordinary piece of behaviour and one they cannot begin to understand—and neither can I. I hope that candidates who were unsuccessful in the original competition will, like anybody else of outstanding ability and commitment, be included in the BBC Trust’s current selection process for the new director-general. However, as the noble Lord, Lord King, suggested, the BBC Trust needs to look at itself, not just at everybody else.

I thank my noble friend for her supportive comments about the BBC. Putting aside the awful events that have happened, I wholeheartedly agree that the BBC acts as a role model throughout the world for high-quality journalism and, indeed, high-quality investigative journalism. Your Lordships will know that two inquiries are going on. One is looking into the culture and practices of the BBC, which is more of a long-term investigation. Mr Pollard is looking at editorial matters to find out why the “Newsnight” programme was in the position that it was in. The report will be out at the end of November.

Mr Entwistle’s compensation, to which I alluded earlier and which was mentioned by my noble friend, is a matter for the BBC. I do not wish to go into its precise details.

My Lords, the Government rightly say that the only organisation which can restore the public’s trust in the BBC is itself, but can the BBC do so under its present chairman and trustees? I ask that because in at least two of the most important areas facing this nation, they are marching determinedly in the opposite direction to the views of a growing majority of the British people. First, an analysis of the trustees reveals that a large majority of them are climate change enthusiasts.

Yes, indeed, my Lords, so it is not surprising that the BBC has decided not to allow informed debate on this subject. Secondly, the BBC remains blindly Europhile—I can prove that too—as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities. I need scarcely add that those interests are no longer the interests of this country.

I do not wish to comment on the European matters mentioned by the noble Lord. As I said, although the trust could have acted more quickly with its initial inquiries, I feel that it is now acting decisively to address this crisis. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, has a key role in ensuring that this crisis is handled well. Again, I support him in everything that he is doing to sort out the mess.

My Lords, it seems that the BBC has made two quite bad but very different mistakes over this period. It also seems that the BBC has become virtually ungovernable. I understand why the Government and the Opposition do not want to meddle in the BBC’s affairs, but to do nothing while the BBC deals with these difficulties seems to me to be quite difficult to justify. I wonder whether the Minister could confirm that he will do all that he can to support the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in the radical overhaul of the governance arrangements of the BBC, of which he spoke, so that once again we can have the confident, world-class, thoroughly professional BBC that has been so important for this country and its reputation both in Britain and abroad.

I do not know whether it is true to say that the BBC is actually ungovernable. As I said earlier, some very serious problems need to be addressed within the BBC. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that we should give the noble Lord, Lord Patten, every support that we can to sort out these issues at this very difficult time.

My Lords, the extent to which the BBC lost the plot is illustrated by its failure in what I hope is an exceptional incident: to put to Lord McAlpine the facts that it was alleging. Why was there such an elementary failure to put these matters to him, contrary to law and natural justice? It is not rocket science.

The noble and learned Lord makes a passionate point. I agree that what happened concerning the naming of Lord McAlpine was completely abhorrent. There are inquiries into the matter and I do not want to comment any further. We are looking to get to the bottom of that through the BBC. It is a matter for the corporation.

My Lords, although I recognise the ghastliness of the events that we are talking about, does the Minister agree that the independence of the BBC is a central phenomenon that we must retain and that it would be a mistake, particularly as none of us knows the true facts, for those in positions such as ours to shoot from the hip? Will the Minister confirm that when the facts are clear and the steps that should be taken have been taken, the matter will come back to the House so that we can have a full debate on exactly what has occurred?

I agree that it is very important indeed to uphold the independence of the BBC, but at this stage I cannot confirm whether there will be a debate. I am certain, however, that discussions are taking place to decide if there will be one in the future.

While everyone is agreed on the seriousness of the crisis that has engulfed the BBC, it is worth reflecting that it was a BBC programme, “Panorama”, which investigated the problems surrounding the Savile issue. One recent aspect of the crisis that has overtaken us is that BBC news bulletins have been leading on this issue hour after hour, day after day. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to think of any organisation, let alone any news organisation—print or broadcast—which, having acknowledged incredibly serious editorial errors, would be as unremittingly self-critical and as open to public scrutiny?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Putting aside the very difficult issues that have arisen over these programmes—which I will not go into—the BBC inquiries will look at all the details and I am sure that in due course we will hear precisely what happened.

I certainly associate myself with the important points that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made and that the Minister acknowledged. The BBC has obviously sustained a blow to its credibility and to the trust that is widely reposed in it, and I suppose that this may be described as a crisis. However, I hope that the Minister would agree—and I take it from what he said that he would—that these things must be kept in proportion and that it would be absurd to suggest that a feeding frenzy over particular incidents, however serious, constitutes a global threat to the BBC’s brand, which remains strong overall and rightly continues to command widespread trust and respect.

I agree very much with the comments of the noble Lord; we must keep the issues in proportion. He is completely correct. I was alarmed by the feeding frenzy that came out of the press, particularly some of the headlines regarding the resignation of Mr Entwistle. I believe this should be a period of calm; there is a need for stability to allow the BBC to work through these very difficult problems. I appreciate the comments made by the noble Lord.

My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?

The right reverend Prelate makes a very important point, with which I concur. I encourage all people who have suffered this horrendous abuse to come forward, as a large number already have. I also agree with him that our thoughts today should be with these people who have suffered so badly. His point is well made.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that heads have rolled at the BBC as a result of a story written not by a BBC journalist but by a freelancer—a Mr Angus Stickler? He sold his story to a “Newsnight” team which was reeling from the consequences of the fallout of the Savile business. The “Newsnight” team was in chaos as a result of that. I am not trying to excuse what happened but let us be absolutely clear: it was not a “Newsnight” employee. It was someone from outside the organisation who, I hope, will no longer be providing information or stories to the BBC in the future.

The noble Lord makes an interesting point. It is still the case, however, that the BBC remains responsible, despite the fact that, allegedly, there was a freelance journalist involved. Again, these issues will be looked at as part of the ongoing inquiries.

My Lords, perhaps I may echo or follow the comments of my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Low. One of the things that I was always taught when I worked as a BBC journalist many years ago—and I declare that interest—was the priority of balance, and balance in this matter is absolutely essential. I would ask the Minister to observe that, at the same time as this whole firestorm about the various “Newsnight” problems, which are indeed reprehensible, was occurring, the BBC was once again demonstrating its enormous global power in its coverage of the American presidential election and of the events in Beijing while at the same time maintaining its very close watch—as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said—on the problems at home which it itself had partly created. I think that we should observe very strongly the question of balance, particularly when we take note, or do not take note, of the comments of some sections of the press.

I agree with the noble Baroness’s comments. I consistently have said that we need a period of calm and stability, and the question of balance crops up as part of that. We need to take a balanced look at the issues, and there needs to be balance generally in looking at these very difficult issues.

My Lords, my noble friend may wish to know that Mr Iain Overton, the editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which produced the offending piece of shoddy journalism for “Newsnight”, has resigned today. Will my noble friend make certain that we and the BBC are fully informed as to how the organisation headed by Mr Overton secured such a trustworthy position with “Newsnight” so that its work on the north Wales child inquiry was not properly investigated and checked?

I thank my noble friend for that information. I was alerted to it just before I came into the Chamber. However, I do not have any further details and I would not wish to comment further about the name mentioned. However, I imagine that this issue and the name mentioned will be taken up as part of the inquiry into these issues.

Does the noble Viscount agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

I would not wish to comment on any particular candidate. I presume that the noble Lord was referring to the search process that the chairman of the trust has said that he would carry out. I am not able to comment on that particular process at the moment. That is a matter, indeed, for the BBC.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?

The noble Lord makes a very important point—that we must not lose sight of the awful events that have taken place and of why the BBC is in the position it is in at the moment. However, given a bit of calm and stability the immediate issues will, one hopes, blow over, and those who are now taking the right decisions will make those decisions and follow them through. I am sure that there will be a number of days of continued press reports but I absolutely take the noble Lord’s point that we must not forget the real issue behind these terrible reports.