Sunday, November 11, 2012

A hard act to follow: BBC editor-in-chief quits over "unacceptable journalistic standards"

In losing its director general, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has shown why it is the gold standard that newsrooms around the world aspire to achieve, but few ever attain.

Taking the fall for a television programme whose content he probably was not au fait with is a tough act to follow because not all newsrooms will operate with the same conviction.

George Entwistle, former director general of the Beeb, tendered his resignation after an investigative journalism programme, Newsnight, alleged child abuse by an unnamed Conservative party politician. This later proved unfounded.

Just 54 days in the job, Mr Entwistle's resignation gives him the dubious honour of being the Beeb's shortest-serving DG.

He said in a statement:"In the light of the fact that the director general is also the editor-in-chief and ultimately responsible for all content, and in the light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2 November, I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of director general."

The Beeb's former boss told BBC News that when he was appointed to the role, he was confident BBC trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post and the "right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead".

"However, the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader," he said.

While there is (thankfully) no episode in the annals of Singaporean journalism that parallel's Mr Entwistle's experience, there are several episodes where the mainstream media ended up on tender ground.

Local scribes with long memories will probably recall the front page story published by a local tabloid in 1991 that claimed a former Cabinet minister had been arrested for a hit-and-run accident. The reporter whose byline accompanied that story lost his job. That painful lesson seems to have been remembered well: In 2009, when netizens were agog over reports that a certain Ho Ching had been charged in court for molest, nothing sensational appeared in the mainstream media....

Another report that ruffled feathers was the one that emerged during a ministerial visit to Brunei. Up-and-coming politician was reported as having failed to hit his target, even after spraying the target with an Ultimax 100 light machine gun. Rumour has it that the report proved the proverbial last straw and the journalist - a respected newsroom personality - subsequently made his exit from the mainstream media.

If you keep your own file of newspaper gaffes, you may discover that the newspaper business is a difficult one indeed.

Grappling with non-negotiable print deadlines, tending to newsmakers who may at best be incoherent or slow to respond and at worst, obstructive/vindictive, and a shorthanded backend of copy eds means that newsroom checks and balances may not always work as intended.

Red faces ensued when the Page 1 picture of a man who died during a race turned up to be someone who was still alive. A Page 1 apology followed promptly.

There was that Money Page story of economic figures, complete with quotes from analysts, which said that a certain sector's performance went one way. Alas, the tiny What It Should Have Been correction that was subsequently published confessed that the sector's peformance had actually gone the other way.(Hopefully, stock market punters did not lose money on that story.)

It will be interesting to speculate how Singapore's mainstream media might react had a Newsnight-type gaffe been made on local television or in the pages of *name your favourite newspaper*. Would the axe fall on the lowest minion in the newsroom's chain of command or would the Beeb's example be replayed with the same vigour?

What about the government sector and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)? Do they practice a blame culture by passing the buck to the lowest life form in the organisation or.....?

Play out this scenario and you will realise why the Beeb's newsroom standards are a tough act to follow.

"To have been the director general of the BBC even for a short period, and in the most challenging of circumstances, has been a great honour," the Beeb's outgoing DG said.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people of the greatest talent and the highest integrity.
"That's what will continue to make it the finest broadcaster in the world."

Primus inter pares.


Anonymous said...

Over here the culture is different. If the BIG BOSS likes you, you get to keep your job for life, perhaps even get to be promoted to a sinecure. Just look at who get to lose hundred of billions and still get to keep the job without a replacement in sight. Our president was promoted from his job at SPH not because the credibility of the newspapers improved but the electorate acquiesce with the top honcho's assessment of his suitability for the job. And when our trains breakdown, expensive lawyers were engaged for the inquiry so that no one end up with the rap.

Anonymous said...

Haha. The rule in Singapore is that responsibility stops at the CO, i.e. LTC/COL level (roughly Deputy Director level in the civil service). Generals and Admirals (Ministers/PS's/DS's/some Directors) are not responsible for "operational issues" so by definition cannot be held to account for their organisation's failings. But maybe things are changing - Saw Phaik Hwa learnt the hard way that CEO's first job is operations, not strategy or policy.