BBC: news or entertainment? Resolve the conflict of interest.

What is the BBC for? That’s the fundamental question thrown up by the disasters the corporation has got itself into. Was the cancellation of a news programme on Jimmy Savile’s reported abuse of young girls influenced by the BBC’s plan to air a celebratory review of his life which was bound to draw in large audience figures?

Quite possibly not, and in light of the BBC’s latest howler over mistaken identity, the journalists working on the Savile exposure may have been right to hold back if they were not sure. But the BBC clearly had a conflict of interests. Should it broadcast a positive programme about Savile because it was bound to be popular as entertainment? Or should it give journalism priority, even if that results in cancellation of the entertainment?

Journalists take it for granted that news has overriding importance. But that is special pleading. Many people are not that interested in the BBC’s news. They have other sources. They are quite content to watch the BBC’s wide range of other programmes.

In any case, it is hard to define news, current affairs, education and so on. How do you categorise yesterday’s Remembrance Day coverage or Andrew Marr’s History of the World series? For most people they were just good, enriching television, and the BBC did it well.

The BBC’s output is so diverse that one head cannot oversee everything effectively, even with capable lieutenants. As talk is of a radical overhaul, perhaps the post of director general should be abolished and the BBC split up into autonomous divisions responsible to its Trust. Or at least relieve the director general of responsibility as editor-in-chief, which he cannot carry out properly alongside his other responsibilities, since they may conflict.

As for the second catastrophe over mistaken identity of another alleged child abuser, all journalists dread them. To get a top story, you have to go to the edge, and only experience and instinct tell you how to avoid going over the cliff. In this case, the BBC journalists made a glaring but elementary error and will have to pay the price. But they will get over it. The BBC will always be able to attract excellent journalists who will get it right in future.

For the moment, they are in disarray. One of their top investigative journalists, John Humphrys, tore apart his boss, director general George Entwhistle, on prime time radio. However the BBC’s other great scourge of interviewees, Jeremy Paxman, said Entwhistle was a “talented man” and it was a shame he was forced to resign. Two more top news executives have since been “asked to step aside.” Somebody will have to bring all this together again.

This now falls to Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, a retired politician, and Tim Davie, acting director general, who until 2005 was marketing director with Pepsico.

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