George Entwistle’s plausible deniability problem


JH: So when did you find out about it?

GE: I heard about it the following day.

JH: The following day? You didn’t see it that night when it was broadcast?

GE: No I was out.

via George Entwistle under fire: the full transcript of Today interview – Telegraph.

I was listening to this interview yesterday morning, and it is extraordinary to read now. As the Guardian points out in one of their articles, George Entwistle spent 23 years rising to the top of the BBC, and then lasted just 54 days in the role of Director General.

All of this happens almost exactly 90 years after the appointment of the BBC’s first ever DG, John Reith, the man who immortalised the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate, and entertain.”

Of course, Lord Reith didn’t have to deal with the Twitter.

Entwistle, it seems to me, is typical of the kind of slippery bureaucrat who dips himself in metaphorical Teflon™ and then slides to the top while less well-coated individuals fall by the wayside. According to the Guardian’s account, Entwistle has been actively getting rid of other senior figures at the BBC:

In his eight short weeks, Entwistle managed to force out Caroline Thomson, the chief operating officer, and John Smith, the experienced boss of the BBC’s commercial arm. Smith – who hasn’t departed – might yet be persuaded to stay on. There is no director of television, and the head of news, Helen Boaden, is so mired in the Savile crisis as to be no use at all – even if she survives.

It’s already clear that Entwistle’s reaction to being told of the earlier Newsnight investigation was to deliberately try not to “show an undue interest” and his reaction on learning that Newsnight is caught up in yet another controversy about a report on child abuse is to admit that he knew nothing about it. In other words, he’s made sure that, if called to testify in committee or courtroom, he can simply say, “I didn’t know, I wasn’t told, I wasn’t there.” As far as doing his job goes, all he has ever been concerned about is plausible deniability, which is the main weapon of the slippery, non-stick weasels who find themselves in charge of large institutions. The Newsnight problem was brought about because the earlier Savile controversy was handled by having everyone involved with it withdraw from editorial decision-making — including the Editor-in-Chief (the DG) himself. That’s like getting a weather forecast wrong and then removing all of the expert weather forecasters and leaving the trainees in charge of the next bulletin. What could possibly go wrong?

Plausible deniability is a term invented by the CIA during the Kennedy era, and was used to similar effect during the Iran-Contra scandal. It’s away of ducking responsibility, or “avoiding blowback” by distancing yourself so far from decision-making that the blame will always fall elsewhere. The problem with plausible deniability as a concept is that it has always been implausible. Everything’s the opposite of what it is. Funnily enough, nobody ever believes that the millionaire-in-charge got where he is today by not knowing what was going on.

We’ve seen (im)plausible deniability at work during the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking. Successive newspaper editors, and then the people in charge at the very top, all denied knowledge, or else conveniently lost their memories about crucial points. “I don’t remember,” is the caught-in-the-headlights fallback position of the Teflon™ ones, because if they can’t convincingly deny all knowledge, they can at least refuse to testify on grounds of diminished retention.

Entwistle seems to have gone out of his way to ensure that nobody told him anything, which is some crazy way to run an organisation as big as the BBC. “Don’t tell me what you’re up to, I don’t want to know,” is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a CIA general to say to the criminal organisation he’d hired to do the dirty work. It’s exactly the same kind of thing Nixon said with regard to the Watergate burglary.

The problem for Nixon was that he kept tape recordings of every meeting he ever had. The problem for Entwistle is that it’s his job to know things, and – most importantly – to mount a robust defence for the BBC when it is attacked by the many vested interests who would like to bring it low (rival media organisations, right-wing ideologues, possibly the CIA, the KGB, and the Cosa Nostra).

Finally, it seems obvious to me that Entwistle, like many of the people we see on television, and many of the people who work in television, doesn’t actually watch much television. You get the feeing he spends a lot of time at cocktail parties, or at the opera. Television is for the little people. “No, I was out,” or “I didn’t see it, I didn’t read it, I didn’t stink the place up,” is all part of the plausible deniability mantra. He probably can’t quite understand all the fuss about something as trivial as a television news report.