Sketch: Hapless Entwistle can’t escape the Savile nightmare
Parliament, like much of the rest of country, is draped in a gloom which goes beyond the miserable weather. Revelations about Jimmy Savile's activities, and the wider culture at the BBC, are triggering anger and dismay across the UK. So the appearance of George Entwistle, 37 days into his job as director-general of the BBC, before the Commons', culture, media and sport committee was an opportunity for MPs to demand answers – and possibly retribution – for the man in charge of an organisation in crisis.
They did not go for the throat – not initially, at least. Instead they seemed in a subdued mood. They appeared saddened, wearied even, by the sheer weight of the allegations the BBC and police officers were having to deal with. A 15-year-old Top Of The Pops dancer who committed suicide, citing "household names" who had "used her", was not the sort of fare to get intense about. MPs just seemed very, very upset.
Entwistle seemed barely in control. He is not a politician, good at avoiding questions and sticking to lines. He is not even a chief executive, used to wriggling away from questions by awkward shareholders. He is a journalist, facing a nightmarish start to his job, barely keeping his head above water with some desperate flailing management-speak.
On the surface he appeared calm, from the pursed-lip smile on entering the room to the measured tone in which he explained that "what we now known happened is a very grave matter indeed". He retained his composure – almost excessively. Conservative MP Damian Collins asked him if he had been angry when he discovered Newsnight editor Peter Rippon's blog was inaccurate. "I was very disappointed indeed," Entwistle said. Collins observed that he had been expecting a "rawer emotion". Behind closed doors Entwistle may have been ranting and raving, but he didn't give that impression today.
Instead the BBC's new director-general gave a masterclass in anxious flapping, striving his very best to cope with a monstrous situation and coming across as rather floppy in the process. Early on Philip Davies tried to bully Entwistle over how many sexual harassment claims were acceptable for the BBC to face. Not a single MP would have offered a specific number in response to that question, but Entwistle did. He was soon in retreat. "No, none are OK," he added, hurriedly.
There was no impression of a firm hand at the tiller dealing with this challenge and leading the BBC forward. "I believe that we have good policies but I'm currently checking to make sure they're as good as they can be," he said. You wouldn't find these words emerging from a single Cabinet minister with a decent set of measures to defend. Hardly inspiring.
This is basic stuff, but Entwistle was messing it up. He showed an almost wilful desire to make sweeping concessions. Having initially mounted a defence of the structures put in place to ensure BBC staff can report sexual harassment, he later conceded the transformation of culture from the 1960s and 1970s was complete. "I'm not convinced it has changed as much as it should have," he admitted. Journalists all around reached for their pens to scribble that down.
By the end of the session the tempo was building up, as MPs became frustrated by Entwistle's insistence that he kept clear of editorial meddling because he didn't want to be seen as interfering. His "determination not to show undue interest", as Davies put it, seemed to extend beyond across the board. Committee chair John Whittingdale accused him of an "extraordinary lack of curiosity". Entwistle, true to form, barely defended himself. "Perhaps I was being over-sensitive," he accepted.
Davies, now fully on the offensive, got a huge laugh after getting Entwistle to accept he needed to be asking questions prompted by the MP. Were there any other questions that MPs needed to prompt him to look into? Entwistle reached for the plastic cup of water in front of him and took a nervous gulp, as the room – which had been grimly listening to this bleak tale of abuse and incompetence – finally dissolved into mocking laughter. He might be reaching for something a bit stronger later on today.