The most striking exchange from George Entwistle's evidence to the Select Committee yesterday came during questions about his response to being told by Helen Boaden that Newsnight was investigating Jimmy Savile's alleged crimes. Boaden suggested this might affect the Savile Christmas tribute for which he was ultimately responsible. Entwistle said, "Thanks for letting me know".
[Entwistle] was then asked by Whittingdale what he thought Newsnight was investigating. "I don't remember reflecting on it," Entwistle replied.
Whittingdale then said: "You didn't want to know?"
"It was a determination not to show an undue interest," Entwistle responded.On the face of it, being determined not to be interested in your organisation when you're one of its most senior executives sounds insane. Especially when the issue is quite obviously an explosive one that will affect your work directly.
In the world of the BBC, Entwistle's phrase probably just about makes sense. It means, "I didn't want to risk being seen as interfering in the process". But the fact that we have translate it like this indicates the extent to which he is sunk into the parallel reality of the bureaucracy through which he has climbed. If something makes sense within the organisation but sounds mad outside it, then that's a good sign that something might be wrong with the culture.
The New York Times recently hired the Mark Thompson, Entwistle's predecessor, as its chief executive. Thompson was Director-General of the BBC when the Newsnight conversations happened. Questions are being asked, not least by the New York Times public editor, about whether he is tainted by this scandal. Thompson, in a statement, makes a not dissimilar defence to Entwistle:
Mr. Thompson said that in his conversation with the reporter and in his follow-up with BBC News officials, he was never told about the nature of the allegations, nor did he ask.
“I had no reason to believe that his conduct was a pressing concern,” he said. “Had I known about the nature of the allegations and the credible allegations that these horrific crimes had taken place during his time at the BBC and in the building at the BBC, I of course would have considered them very grave and would have acted very differently."Nor did he ask. The bizarro-world BBC logic is even more apparent here. Had Thompson known about the nature of the allegations, everything would have been different, but he didn't know because he didn't want to know.
It's the James and Rupert Murdoch defence, though in some ways it's weaker, because Entwistle and Thompson are not claiming to not have been fully informed, rather that they deliberately turned a blind eye for the sake of bureaucratic protocol.
In sociology this approach to management is known as "strategic ignorance". To quote from the abstract of a recent study: "Knowledge is seen as a source of power, and ignorance as a barrier to consolidating authority in political and corporate arenas." But as it goes on to say, ignorance can be a source of power too. It can enable executives and politicians to deny liability and make the decisions they want without having to fully account for them.
Thompson and Entwistle presumably rose right to the top by regularly applying this kind of brake on their natural curiosity about what was going on around them. Within the BBC, an institution dedicated to the gathering and dissemination of knowledge, ignorance is clearly a very valuable asset.