Entwistle learns the true nature of the BBC

I used to think that the toughest PR job in the UK was comms director for British Airways, but BA - not to tempt fate - has been more stable of late. Now the job I wouldn't envy is PR chief at the BBC.

Danny Rogers: 'By its very nature, the BBC is prone to dealing with controversial subject matter.'
Danny Rogers: 'By its very nature, the BBC is prone to dealing with controversial subject matter.'

At the time of going to press Savile-gate is still unfolding. It looks bad for Auntie, with new director-general George Entwistle under immense pressure.

The i newspaper's splash on Monday read: 'This is the worst crisis in 50 years at the BBC,' a quote attributed to foreign editor John Simpson. This is still too early to judge. Indeed, the Savile crisis would have to trump a few other contenders over a five-year period.

We had Queen-gate back in 2007 when the BBC wrongly implied that Her Majesty had stormed out of a documentary; the mishandling of viewers' phone-voting the same year; and Sachs-gate in 2008, when presenters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand insulted actor Andrew Sachs on air.

In retrospect it was a miracle that former director-general Mark Thompson stayed in his role. To his credit - and that of PR advisers such as former head of press Donald Steel - the BBC suffered fewer crises in subsequent years, gradually rebuilding its reputation.

When Entwistle took over this summer, many commentators saw the rosier background and a guaranteed licence fee, and predicted the 'only way was down' for the new director-general. But nobody expected such an early fall from grace when Savile-gate reared its ugly, ring-laden hand.

The BBC has two hugely experienced comms professionals - director of comms Paul Mylrea and head of press and media relations Julian Payne - currently in the hot seat.

They have a difficult beast to handle, precisely because the Beeb is such a large, diverse organisation. The challenge is to get to the truth of a matter with so many entrenched and powerful interests.

Also, by its very (journalistic) nature, the BBC is prone to dealing with controversial subject matter, with journalists locked in fierce battle with their peers. And of course the state-funded broadcaster will always draw venom from the right-wing newspapers.

All that said, the current crisis is fast becoming another case study in how not to do it, with contradictory information emerging day-by-day. Entwistle quickly needs to show leadership.

The BBC is a hugely trusted brand that will survive in the longer-term. But former employee Savile, and poor decisions subsequently, have tragically set progress back by several years.

danny.rogers@haymarket.com

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