Saving Auntie: Meet the BBC’s new boss

Who is George Entwistle and what challenges does he face?

Last Wednesday, the BBC announced the appointment of longtime employee George Entwistle to the corporation’s top post of director general. He took over immediately from Mark Thompson, the man who weathered Russell Brand’s phone pranks and oversaw the opening of a new office in Salford, in the north of England.

“It’s a privilege to be asked to lead the greatest broadcasting organization in the world,” Entwistle said at a July 4 press conference on his appointment.

Entwistle, 50, is a conservative choice from a corporation so familiar to the British public it’s known there as “auntie.” He beat three other candidates for the job, including Ed Richards, chief of the British media-regulating body Ofcom, Caroline Thomson, who is the BBC’s chief operating officer, and another, unnamed outside candidate.

The Trust declined the opportunity to bring in fresh blood to shake up the BBC, and overlooked the chance to appoint its first female director general, which would have answered critics who accuse the BBC of ageism and sexism - accusations that culminated in a court case last year after a female presenter in her fifties was sacked. Instead, the Trust appointed a man so similar to the outgoing director general that some say he is known internally as “mini-me.” Now it’s up to Entwistle to prove that the safe decision was the right one.

His biggest trial in the near future will likely be navigating the license fee review in 2016, where Entwistle must show the government that the BBC still deserves to be funded by taxpayers.

The most recent license fee agreement was the product of two days of deliberation between Thompson and the treasury—the government body that decides economic policy—in 2010 (usually, the process takes more than a year). Despite government pressure to cut budgets, Thompson secured a freeze on the annual license fee at £145.50 ($225) per household until 2016. In the trade-off, he agreed that the corporation would fund the BBC World Service, the 80-year-old radio station that was once a wartime protector of democracy paid for by the Foreign Office, the government department that oversees international UK interests.

At the time of the 2010 agreement, the British government was in bed with Rupert Murdoch, who was busy selling Prime Minister David Cameron the idea that News International should take over BSkyB, relegating the BBC to the backseat. That vision is now in ruins, and the Leveson inquiry continues to pick over the wreckage. For the time being, at least, the case for a public broadcasting service—rather than a privately held monopoly on the airwaves, as almost happened with Murdoch—has never looked stronger.

Entwistle will still have to prove BBC content is worth its price tag in the run up to the next license fee review. In June, nearly 2,500 people complained directly to the corporation that its coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee was too lightweight and rambling - coverage that Entwistle was partly responsible for creating. Now he’s in the big chair, and the day-to-day scrutiny is certain to intensify.

Entwistle must also plan for a digital future in which the BBC is a global competitor with a technological capacity to match. Thompson managed it with the launch of a hugely popular online television and radio service called “BBC iPlayer”, which allows viewers to watch and listen to broadcasts for seven days after they air. It remains one of the best online media services available on the Web.

In a 23-year career at the BBC, including stints in charge of hard news programs such as Newsnight and Panorama, Entwistle crafted a reputation for being quiet and efficient. Jana Bennett, a former editor at the BBC, told the Guardian that he was a “very, very good leader”.

The message is one of continuity. It will serve the BBC well in a current British media climate wracked by budget cuts and the phone-hacking scandal. But as 2016 approaches, a more radical approach may be necessary to prove the BBC is still worthy of its fee.

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , , , ,