For the last month, the BBC has been heavily criticized for not airing allegations of child sex abuse committed by one of its star hosts, the late Jimmy Savile. Now it is in crisis because it did broadcast claims against a former senior politician that turned out to be wrong.
In a humiliating retreat for one of the world's leading broadcasters, the BBC apologized Friday for airing a report featuring accusations from a child abuse victim which the victim later retracted.
The BBC also said it was suspending investigations at "Newsnight" — its premiere investigative program. That's the same show under investigation for not airing a report on Savile.
Friday's apology stems from a BBC report aired last week that indicated there were child abuse allegations against an unnamed senior politician from the Margaret Thatcher era. The network did not name the politician, but Internet chatter identified him as Alistair McAlpine, a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords.
Angry about the rumors, McAlpine came forward Friday to denounce the claims as completely false. His accuser, abuse victim Steve Messham, then apologized and said he had identified the wrong man.
That led the BBC to say it apologized "unreservedly" for broadcasting the report. The apology came after McAlpine's lawyer threatened legal action.
The BBC's apology came after a week of claims and counterclaims in the spreading abuse scandal. Since accusations surfaced last month that renowned BBC host Savile sexually abused young victims for decades without being exposed, scores of adults have come forward to claim that their own allegations of sex assault in the past were ignored.
With the country reeling over how to respond to a torrent of new abuse claims, Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday warned the media and the public of the danger of shredding the reputations of innocent figures.
"Effectively, you are casting lots of aspersions about lots of people without any evidence," Cameron said. "You have to be careful you don't start some sort of witch hunt against some people who might be entirely innocent."
Cameron's words, coming a day after he was handed a list on live television of high-profile figures named in Internet rumors as possible sex offenders, took on greater significance Friday after it emerged that McAlpine was wrongly accused in a case of mistaken identity.
Last week, "Newsnight" aired a report on allegations related to sex abuse in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. The program interviewed abuse victim Messham, who claimed that previous reports into the Wales scandal had failed to examine abuse by someone he described as a senior Conservative Party figure at the time, but did not name.
On Friday, McAlpine said he was likely the political figure referred to in the "Newsnight" report. McAlpine, who was Conservative Party treasurer in the era of Thatcher, insisted he had never been involved in the abuse of children and suggested that he had been the victim of mistaken identity.
That turned out to be true.
Messham, the abuse victim, later Friday told the BBC he had offered "sincere and humble apologies" to McAlpine for wrongly identifying his abuser.
"After seeing a picture in the past hour of the individual concerned, this (is) not the person I identified by photograph presented to me by the police in the early 1990s, who told me the man in the photograph was Lord McAlpine," Messham told the BBC.
The BBC's decision to broadcast Messham's initial claim came as it conducted an internal inquiry into why "Newsnight" had shelved an investigation into Savile late last year, weeks before the organization screened tribute shows about his life and work. Savile, who presented music and children's shows on BBC, died in October 2011.
When its rival ITV aired allegations about Savile last month, the expose led to a widespread discussion of other, unrelated sexual abuse in Britain in the recent past — including cases in Wales in which Messham was a victim.
Amid frenzied speculation, Cameron was on Thursday handed a list of individuals who have been the subject of Internet speculation during an interview by ITV's "This Morning" program. In his haste, the show's presenter Phillip Schofield fleetingly showed the note to a camera, revealing some of the identities.
McAlpine said that rumors spreading online and the actions of the BBC and ITV had left him with little option other than to comment. "In order to mitigate, if only to some small extent, the damage to my reputation I must publicly tackle these slurs and set the record straight," he said in a statement.
The politician said that he had never abused Messham or any other child, and had never visited children's homes or a hotel in the Welsh town of Wrexham where the victim told the BBC that sex abuse had taken place.
Meanwhile, Britain's television standards regulator Ofcom confirmed that it had received complaints about ITV's "This Morning" over its handling of the child abuse issue.
"The action of presenting a random list from the Internet of alleged 'suspects' to the prime minister, live on television, was a grave error of judgment," said Conservative lawmaker Stuart Andrew, who is among those to have filed a complaint.
Schofield, the ITV presenter, stressed it was never his intention to identify anyone on the list and apologized if viewers were able see names. "I was not accusing anyone of anything and it is essential that it is understood that I would never be part of any kind of witch hunt," he said in a statement.
ITV said in a statement it was "extremely regrettable" that a "misjudged camera angle" may have made names briefly visible. The broadcaster echoed Schofield in insisting that the program was not making any accusations against anyone in particular.