In his first week as director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle has spoken exclusively to Radio Times magazine about his lifelong relationship with Britain’s biggest broadcaster.
Entwistle, 50, told RT editor Ben Preston how his first dealings with the BBC were at the age of just six: young George wrote a letter to the then director-general Charles Curran, complaining about having to miss Tom and Jerry because of extended coverage of the Budget.
As a 12-year-old, Entwistle was still avidly consuming content from the Corporation. “I would go to my bedroom and listen to Kaleidoscope and The World Tonight. I think my parents thought it was a bit strange. But these programmes laid a foundation…”
Despite this early commitment to the BBC, Entwistle’s path to the corridors of broadcasting power was not without obstacles. After leaving Durham University, the young George was turned down for several BBC schemes, and it was only after five years working at Haymarket Magazines that, in 1989, George finally got to work for the Beeb.
But as his friend Barry Norman said in the Radio Times article, “You learn far more from the knockbacks,” adding: “George was always very bright and charming. I’ve just written to him to say I’ll blackmail him about youthful indiscretions unless he looks kindly on my ideas for commissioning.”
Entwistle quickly rose through the ranks as a journalist at the BBC, working on Panorama, On the Record and finally Newsnight, becoming editor of the flagship BBC current affairs programme in 2001. In 2004, Entwistle entered the ranks of the execs, heading up topical arts at BBC2 and BBC4, moving on to become acting BBC4 controller, head of knowledge and then finally director of BBC Vision in 2011.
Asked what has he learned about the Corporation over the years, Entwistle said: “The original letter I wrote as part of the [director-general] application process said I both love the BBC and at times find it an immensely frustrating place. It can feel – and this has been true the whole time I have been here – that the way the organisation is run is somehow slightly dislocated from the thing the organisation is for: outstanding creative originality and outstanding journalistic quality.”
Entwistle vowed to “go to war on… every bit of the design and structure and management of every bit of the culture that isn’t optimised for that.”
“My hunch,” he added, “is that there isn’t a single bit of the BBC that, in places, can’t do better.”
Entwistle was also keen to emphasise the importance of making every penny of the licence fee work for those who pay it, particularly in these times of repeated budget cuts across the BBC.
Highlighting an area that often comes under press scrutiny – the pay of big-name talent – Entwistle insisted the BBC should try to maintain its stars, but not at any cost.
“We are very good at finding new people. We put them on the telly, we turn them into something remarkable fairly quickly. The rest of television thinks: that’s a nice short cut, we’ll take that piece of talent away.
“We should fight to hang on to the people we love, but we should never bankrupt ourselves to keep them because that’s not what we’re for. We should keep on looking to find the next generation.”
Read the full interview with George Entwistle, learn about his love for Mad Men, and see the letter he wrote to the BBC aged six, in this week’s Radio Times magazine, on sale now.