Tuesday, 13 November 2012

On accountability and responsibility

The more the panic at the BBC develops – the Director General resigning after a few weeks in the job, being given twice his contractual pay-off for doing so, and with suspensions and stand-ins all over the place – the more I ask why George Entwistle went in the first place, even after his craven interview with John Humphries on 10th November and his admission that he took insufficient notice of the Newsnight crisis once it had started to develop.

There has been a lot of talk – not least from Entwistle – about his ultimate ‘responsibility’ for what happened. In fact, he is ultimately accountable for what happened. As he noted, the Newsnight programme went through the various checks that existed long before he became Director-General. Both the journalism and those checks were done in a sloppy and unprofessional way and didn’t keep to basic standards, but others were responsible for them.

As a manager, accountability incorporates responsibility if you set up structures and/or procedures that are flawed, fail to reform them when you detect problems - whether inherited or your own, or fail to have sufficient oversight of those that are in place. The first doesn’t apply to Entwistle; the second can’t yet apply as he had only been in the post for a few weeks. The third is more arguable, but I believe a new person in a huge job should be allowed to make errors, if only for the purpose that they learn from and don’t repeat them. Also, in theory a fire could develop anywhere in the BBC’s vast forest, but one cannot expect the DG rather than the system he or she oversees to pick them up.

Finally, with regard to the second point above, accountability is an active thing: it is about putting things right, and the new DG was not been given this chance. If he had been given that chance, and had failed, then we could have started talking about his responsibility.

Meanwhile, let’s panic. What else is there to do?

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