Last updated: November 11, 2012 8:22 pm

Downing St calls for ‘grip’ at BBC

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Lord Chris Patten arrives to speak to journalists outside New Broadcasting House©AFP

Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, has become embroiled in a row over executive pay-offs

Downing Street told the BBC to “show grip” on Sunday after George Entwistle’s resignation but was careful not to say what – or who – it should hang on to.

Senior politicians from all the main parties said Mr Entwistle had been right to step down as director-general after errors of journalistic judgment at the Newsnight current affairs programme.

However, they stepped back from calling for the resignation of Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust – the organisation’s governing body – or making broader statements about the future of the publicly-funded but independent broadcaster. The prime minister’s spokesperson said the broadcaster needed to “show grip” but stressed the crisis was not “existential”.

Gavyn Davies, a Financial Times blogger and former BBC chairman who resigned after the publication of the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly, a government scientist, said: “I don’t think they are interfering in this particular instance. They often do ... but not in this instance.”

For now, ministers are stressing the importance of rebuilding trust in the BBC in much the same tone and language as Lord Patten has. But in the longer term, they may push for significant changes at the broadcaster – and more widely. The scandal at the BBC could affect how they view the recommendations of the wide-ranging Leveson inquiry into press standards, due to report this month.

An aide to Maria Miller, the culture secretary, said the mid-crisis was not the time to say whether systems needed to be looked at. “Early on the trust hasn’t handled things as well as they could have but now they have a grip and are moving forward,” a source close to Ms Miller said.

Throughout Saturday as Mr Entwistle mulled over his resignation, Ms Miller kept in touch with the BBC Trust. Her aide said from the beginning of the scandal, she had been concerned that the process should be “correct and transparent” but had not put pressure on the trust or Mr Entwistle to make him resign.

Over the coming days, Ms Miller will have more contact with the trust and BBC bosses can be expected to be called, once again, before the Commons culture, media and support committee.

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the committee, said the government was “perfectly entitled and indeed should act if it thinks the management of the BBC is somehow not working effectively”.

Mr Whittingdale said there might have to be other resignations of senior staff and the role of the director-general might have to be split into a chief executive and editor-in-chief role.

Mr Davies, meanwhile, fears the government could use the scandal to try to change the broadcaster, for example by passing power to a more distant regulator, which he said could be irrelevant or make the problem worse.

“There is always pressure from the government to change the regulatory structure of the BBC,” he said. “There will probably be pressure on the BBC to go further up at this stage and feed more regulatory authority to Ofcom [the media regulator].”

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