“To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

A very British crisis needs a very British epigraph. The BBC has lost not one, but two directors general in the space of three months. The first, Mark Thompson, left the Corporation under what seemed like orderly circumstances to take up a post as chief executive of The New York Times, a job he officially starts on Monday. The circumstances of the second departure are far messier. George Entwistle, who had been in the job barely more than a month, did “the honorable thing” on Friday and resigned after two editorial mistakes made by the formerly well regarded BBC program Newsnight made his position untenable.

Entwistle’s resignation on Saturday was directly linked to a report broadcast by Newsnight on November 2 that misidentified a public figure allegedly involved in a child abuse scandal. The report, connected to an already broiling scandal, did not make things any worse, theoretically, for Thompson. But the BBC he left is now facing a very serious challenge to its future and independence.

The turmoil at the BBC started with a revelation involving a now-dead TV presenter and public figure, Jimmy Savile, who is accused of molesting possibly hundreds of children. US commentators have tried to explain Savile to the domestic audience, but there really is no parallel here. (For those who really want to understand the deep roots of the scandal, you can do no better than to read Andrew O’Hagan’s essay in the London Review of Books.) The allegations against Savile were being investigated by Newsnight last year, but its editor, Peter Rippon, decided not to run the investigation on the grounds that the evidence was not sound enough. Subsequently, rival broadcaster ITV pulled together a documentary carrying the allegations against Savile, making the BBC’s decision not to run the original piece seem both flawed and possibly compromised. Just as Entwistle succeeded Thompson as director general, the story of how the BBC had shelved its piece broke.

Two internal inquiries were ordered, and the speculation over what had happened at the BBC ran rife on social media, across newspapers, websites, and on the BBC itself. The Corporation is public property in the UK, and with it can come both a strong sense of pride and institutional love, but also a visceral and inclusive criticism and calls for heads to roll.

The most preposterous and fitting denouement to the whole horrible affair happened when, in an attempt to prove itself institutionally robust, Newsnight commissioned a second piece into another child abuse scandal. The show broadcast its investigation on November 2, conducted with the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism. Including details about an alleged pedophile, the report led to the misidentification of a former member of a Conservative government as being involved in a North Wales care-home scandal after the central witness interviewed misidentified his abuser. Failing to conduct a sufficiently thorough cross-checking of the victim’s evidence, or even to show him a picture of the former politician, were basic journalistic errors. To make matters worse, the Bureau’s editorial head, Iain Overton, had foreshadowed the “exclusive” by tweeting about it earlier in the day. So in scrambling to address the perception that it was timid in breaking stories about pedophilia, Newsnight’s overcompensation has led to a potentially ruinous situation of the BBC creating false rumors.

There are two separate issues in play with all this that have become toxically intertwined. One is the existence of an endemic culture of child abuse in a number of British institutions, and the other is about the editorial independence and journalistic future of the BBC.

The Corporation currently has no director general, no head of audio, and no head of television. Head of news Helen Boaden played a key role in the Savile affair, as she knew of the original program and her department was involved in discussing it with editors. Boaden was also reportedly asked before the scandal broke to move to head of audio from head of news, something she refused to do. So effectively the Corporation also has no head of news, Boaden being “quarantined” by the Savile inquiries. Entwistle was struck by a hurricane of circumstances without the institutional shelter and support someone who runs a 25,000-strong organization would normally expect.

The calls for thorough reform and change at the BBC, which have been often repeated in the past few weeks, not least by the chairman of the BBC’s own governing trust, Lord Chris Patten, are frequent and alarming in their imprecision. Part of what makes journalism good is accountability; part of what makes it fail is clouded judgment and ill-judged reactions to external pressures. Creating a culture that supports both within a newsroom is not something easily imposed from outside. It requires not just the articulation of a vision but also its rigorous daily application in practice. Good journalists and great news organizations make occasional mistakes.

The original error from the point of view of the original scandal was the decision of a news program not to run what now seems a good story. The critical and fatal error was to run a story the BBC should never have allowed on air.

Breaking a big story is like pulling the pin on a grenade. It takes judgment and courage, or stupidity, to toss significant facts into the public domain. Until it detonates, its collateral damage is unknowable—and once it does, the consequences are unpredictable. Editors are paid almost entirely for knowing when to pull the pin and what to do at the point of impact. Big stories that are mishandled have terrible consequences for peoples’ lives, and we see this played out in the aftermath of the Savile affair. Nowhere is more keenly aware of this than the news department of the BBC. To understand the BBC’s journalistic reflex, the culture and atmosphere of enterprise reporting at the corporation, one must really understand what happened during the summer of 2003—a far bigger crisis, with much more serious consequences.

That May, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan went on the air on the Radio 4 morning program Today to discuss allegations he had from a source that the UK Government had inflated claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify the March 2003 invasion of the country. The allegation was repeated twice more by other BBC journalists in subsequent days.

Who was the source of the story? Speculation was rife among journalists and was allegedly fed by briefings from government. This led to the outing of a respected government scientist, Dr. David Kelly. Kelly was a weapons expert and someone who often briefed journalists, although on this occasion not with direct authority.

At a foreign affairs Parliamentary select committee meeting in a sweltering room on July 15, 2003, Kelly was grilled by members of Parliament in a hearing that was broadcast live. The transcript makes for uncomfortable reading—two days later, on July 17, Kelly went on a short walk from his home into nearby woods and took his own life. For those who covered the story, it is unlikely they will ever forget hearing the first report of Kelly’s death.

The subsequent inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, led by Lord Brian Hutton, cleared the government of wrongdoing and underhanded tactics in revealing the source and heavily criticized the BBC’s “defective” editorial processes. For many at the BBC, and for some of us who had closely observed and reported the events, the complete exoneration of the government seemed breathtaking, but the immediate and lasting effect was to immortalize the BBC’s culpability in journalism and process.

The Hutton Inquiry resulted in the resignation of BBC director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies, a major reshuffle in its news department, and a cloud that has shadowed its journalism since. Mark Thompson was the man brought in to steady the ship, and part of his reshuffle of the BBC’s news and current affairs division saw the rise of a more risk-averse approach. Ironically, some of the most able journalists at the BBC at the time, including head of news Richard Sambrook and deputy head of news Mark Damazer, are no longer at the Corporation. The oral history of firestorms, mistakes made, and lessons learned is a really vital part of institutional strength in news. When those who hold it leave, you lose something elemental about your culture.

BBC management is unusual in that it is held to almost constant public account in a way that no other organization is. It is loved and criticized like no other institution in the UK with the possible exception of the National Health service and the monarchy. If you grew up in Britain, the BBC is part of your cultural identity. To see it at its best is to behold something really extraordinary—for instance, creating new technological, editorial, and cultural standards around the coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics that genuinely have an impact on perception, public conversation, and national culture. To see it floundering in crisis, ricocheting from one poor decision to the next, is dismaying.

But this is the cycle of the BBC. A less bureaucratic, expansionist BBC was created under Dyke after the process-driven genius of predecessor John Birt (who won few popularity contests but introduced the idea of the Internet and made the organization financially secure). The Dyke era misjudged the importance of political expedience, and the Thompson era was the sweeping up operation demanded at the time. Now, the resulting timidity and second-guessing of news looks set to be swept aside by another cyclical correction. Maybe Entwistle would have done that, but now we will never know.

In 1986, Michael Leapman wrote a book called The Last Days of the Beeb after a series of similar political and editorial crises. He diagnosed a directionless, underconfident institution and prescribed the remedy of fragmentation. Twenty-six years later, we will hear the same thing said. The BBC indeed needs to reorganize more effectively for journalism, management, and editorial direction that fits the digital age. It needs to discover a journalistic locus that will be supported by the public but fills a void the market is undoubtedly incapable of doing at the moment.

As for Mark Thompson’s first day at The New York Times, the issue of his suitability for the job follows him into the management suite. The CEO of the NYT is similar to that of the director general of the BBC in that expectations for the role far exceed the likelihood of their achievement. One comforting note for the highly anxious editorial floor at the NYT is that Thompson has nothing to do with the editorial management of the paper. Rather, he will be focusing on finding new revenues and building a global strategy for the brand. Thompson has been accused of allowing these aspects of his work at the BBC to take precedence over whipping journalists into better shape.

Whilst it might come as a shock to the New York publishing industry to hear it, running the NYT is a tough gig, particularly as it is unclear what the actual task is, but as we have seen in the past month, it is not as tough as running the BBC.

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Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a member of CJR's Board of Overseers.