Taking the fall ... former BBC chief George Entwistle arrives home after resigning his post in London on Saturday, just two months into the job. Photo: Reuters
BEIJING: This is a difficult time to be in China, if you work for the BBC. Every time I look at a TV set here, Chinese television seems to be running a story about the corporation's shortcomings. Maybe I'm over-sensitive, but I get the impression the reporters are revelling in it. The same is no doubt true in Russia, in Iran, and in plenty of other countries where television journalists are made to exercise the strictest self-censorship, and to lay off awkward subjects.
The worst thing is, the BBC's injury is wholly self-inflicted. There were no violent clashes with angry Labour or Conservative governments keen to clip the BBC's independence, just a really terrible bit of journalism by the corporation itself; two terrible bits, indeed. They have cost the career of another director-general, the decent and highly intelligent George Entwistle, and there could be more blood-letting now he has gone.
It's no use those who work for BBC News pointing out that it had nothing to do with the twin disasters, which were entirely due to a couple of program decisions by Newsnight. The standards of BBC news reporting remain as high as ever, even if the whole BBC has been tarnished by what happened. But the damage has been done.
What ought to happen now? Lord Patten, whose own position as BBC chairman may depend on it, talks of "a thorough, radical, structural overhaul".
It may look good if more senior people resign, but the only effect it will have will be to make the people who take their place more timid. If it happens, it will be a copout. What is required is a change in the way News and Current Affairs, and perhaps other parts of the BBC, are controlled. Entwistle's accounts of why he didn't know what was going on were horribly embarrassing, but the fact is that the director-general is no more aware of the day-to-day routines of broadcasting than the prime minister is of the way the civil service runs.
The job is simply too big, and nowadays involves too many branches for personal oversight. Perhaps the BBC needs a more thoroughgoing form of cabinet government, and a return to the days when the deputy director-general was in direct charge of all journalism. That post was abolished as part of the spending cuts.
It may well not be a coincidence that Newsnight has been at the centre of both the scandals that have enveloped the corporation, since its budget has been deeply cut year on year. In the past Newsnight would never have thought of contracting out something as important as the investigation of a child-molestation scandal to an independent company; it would have been done in-house, by people who adhered to the BBC's own standards.
What should the BBC's news and current affairs staff do now? Essentially, Keep Calm And Carry On. The usual standards of News, Newsnight, Panorama and the rest are extraordinarily high – you really do have to travel the world to understand that – and their staff must all just keep on doing what they have always done. That is what, over the decades, gained the corporation the approval of the great majority of its viewers, listeners and readers.
Secondly, the BBC mustn't lose its nerve. There will be editors and managers now who will be scared to stick their necks out and broadcast stories that are difficult or contentious. It is essential to ignore them. Being careful is not the same as being chicken. Panorama has been as bold and as hard-hitting as ever during this dreadful period, and it should be the model for everyone else in News and Current Affairs.
Thirdly, the BBC must concentrate on what it does best. In particular its news and current affairs programs must be made to shine again. I The BBC is overstocked with talent, and its people are not always well enough or frequently enough deployed.
Reputations once lost are very hard indeed to regain. People forget the precise reasons why they no longer have faith in an organisation, but the whiff of untrustworthiness lingers for a very long time. The only way to get rid of it is to provide evidence of thoroughness and honesty, hour by hour and minute by minute.
The BBC's existential enemies on the far left and far right are few in number, and can probably never be won over. But it needs to accept that the rest, the vast majority of the country and of its viewers and listeners around the world, have been badly disappointed; and it must start the business of regaining their trust right away.
David Petraeus, the American general who resigned as head of the CIA a few hours before Entwistle left the BBC, had a list of rules to live by. One of them, in particular, applies to the BBC: "We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognise them and admit them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear-view mirrors."
It's the only way forward.