In a three-hour session this morning, BBC Trust chairman Lord Chris Patten and acting BBC director general Tim Davie answered questions about ongoing troubles at the broadcaster. This was the same panel that grilled George Entwistle in October, two weeks before he was forced to resign as director general. Patten’s and Davie’s turns were somewhat less fraught, although Patten was often taken to task by one BBC-averse MP. Both Patten and Davie owned up to a “bad journalistic error” that led to the running of a recent Newsnight report that falsely implied former Margaret Thatcher adviser Lord McAlpine was a pedophile. However, Davie said he thought cancelling the 60 Minutes-like flagship program would be an “overreaction.” Disciplinary hearings are currently underway with the dozen or so people involved in the report.
Davie allowed that trust in the BBC “has taken a knock,” adding, “It’s still the case that the BBC is trusted more than any news organization, but that is not a statement of complacency because we have shot ourselves in the foot. We have to rebuild that trust.” The way to gaining back the public’s confidence is by delivering “on the ground flawlessly” and being “more transparent and slightly more humble,” he said. Patten for his part spent a lot of time defending George Entwistle’s reputation and called him a “decent man who was overwhelmed by a difficult job.” Entwistle started his tenure just as revelations surfaced of late BBC host Jimmy Savile‘s alleged decades-long abuse of minors and that a BBC Newsnight segment exposing such allegations had been shelved a year prior. In early November, when Entwistle was forced out, Patten said he wondered “how much his heart was in it. I think he found the whole thing an appalling experience.” Entwistle was given a controversial £450K payoff when he left the BBC. Patten today explained the exec received the full-year salary after only 54 days in the job because the BBC could have been liable for much more if an unfair dismissal suit had been brought.
Entwistle’s predecessor Mark Thompson, who is now CEO of the New York Times Company, on Friday gave evidence to the BBC’s internal inquiry into the Newsnight cancellation. That interview is expected to be made public when the review is finished just ahead of Christmas. Patten said he hadn’t seen Thompson since last month when they had a “brief discussion about Savile and Newsnight.” But Patten denied talking to Thompson on those subjects in early September. It was then that Thompson approved a letter to Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times threatening legal action if the paper suggested there had been a cover-up over the Savile/Newsnight affair. The next day, rival network ITV sent a letter to the BBC saying it was going to run its untimately damning report on Savile. Conservative MP and BBC critic Philip Davies asked Patten today, “Are you seen as some kind of patsy for executives at the BBC? There are very serious issues that come up and they don’t tell you about them?” That was one of several intense moments between Davies and Patten. The MP, skeptical of Patten’s effectiveness at the BBC Trust, later asked if he would provide a diary of his daily whereabouts. Patten responded, “Certainly not! If you think I’m going to do a diary for you in order to satisfy some populist pursuit of somebody who you don’t want to run an organization that you don’t want to exist, I think you’re kiddding yourself. Do you want my toilet habits?” Patten did allow at one point that he had considered resigning from the Trust over the recent scandals, but he did not reply when Davies asked, “Why don’t you resign?”