BBC director of news 'steps aside' as scandal widens

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 12, 2012 19:40 hrs

The crisis over the BBC’s reporting of a decades-old sexual abuse scandal deepened on Monday as two more senior executives withdrew temporarily from their jobs following the resignation of the corporation’s director general in what the chairman of its supervisory trust called a “ghastly mess.”

The BBC’s web site said its director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, had “stepped aside,” the latest moves since a flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician, Alistair McAlpine, in accusations of sexual abuse at a children’s home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

A separate internal inquiry is investigating an earlier incident one year ago when Newsnight cancelled a programme concerning allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a longtime BBC television host who died last year at age 84.

But even as the two executives were reported to be stepping aside, the BBC management seemed to be trying to minimise the impact of the moves, saying it wanted “to make it absolutely clear that neither Helen Boaden nor Stephen Mitchell had anything at all to do with the failed Newsnight investigation into Lord McAlpine.”

“Whilst recognising this, the BBC also believes there is a lack of clarity in the lines of command and control in BBC News” because of the Savile inquiry, which is being conducted by Nick Pollard, a former head of the rival Sky News.

“In the circumstances Helen and Stephen will be stepping aside from their normal roles until the Pollard review reports and they expect to then return to their positions,” the BBC said, promising a public statement later into the botched reporting about Lord McAlpine, a former treasurer of the Conservative Party in the Thatcher era.

The BBC said its head of news gathering, Fran Unsworth, and Ceri Thomas, the editor of the Today current affairs radio programme, are to fill in for the executives who stepped aside. Lord Chris Patten, the chairman of the supervisory BBC Trust said on Sunday that the broadcasting organisation was in a “ghastly mess” as a result of its bungled coverage of the sexual abuse scandal and was in need of a fundamental shake-up.

“Does the BBC need a thorough structural overhaul? Of course it does,” Lord Patten said on “The Andrew Marr Show,” the BBC’s main Sunday morning talk show, following the resignation of George Entwistle, the director general on Saturday night.

But although Lord Patten has said that the BBC’s handling of the scandal was marked by “unacceptably shoddy journalism”.

He pushed back on the Marr show against suggestions that the crisis could lead to a dismantling of the BBC as it now exists, with 23,000 employees, a $6 billion annual budget and a dominant role in British broadcasting.

Lord Patten, 68, a former Conservative cabinet minister who was Britain’s last colonial governor in Hong Kong, said critics of the BBC should not lose sight of its reputation at home and abroad for trustworthy journalism.

Meanwhile on Monday, ex-BBC boss Mark Thompson will begin his new post as president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. He has said he knew nothing beforehand about the “Newsnight” investigation of Savile or the decision to scrap it — not even that it involved allegations of paedophilia — and that he had never met Savile. But Thompson has said that he is willing to answer any questions put to him by a parliamentary inquiry or a raft of other investigations now under way.

“The BBC is and has been hugely respected around the world,” he said. “But we have to earn that. If the BBC loses that, then it is over.”

Public confidence in the broadcaster, already battered by the Savile affair, has slumped further in opinion polls in the wake of its coverage of the latest scandal. But the British public would not support breaking up the BBC, Lord Patten said, adding, “The BBC is one of the things that has come to define and reflect Britishness, and we shouldn’t lose that.”

Barely 12 hours earlier, Lord Patten stood outside the BBC’s new billion-dollar London headquarters with the departing director general as Entwistle announced his resignation, after only eight weeks in the post, to atone for his failings in dealing with what he called “the exceptional events of the past few weeks.”

Responding to reports that the “Newsnight” segment was broadcast without some basic fact-checking that would have exonerated Lord McAlpine, 70, Entwistle said it reflected “unacceptable journalistic standards” and never should have been broadcast.

On Monday, British lawmakers, politicians and newspapers focused on a decision by the BBC Trust to authorise a settlement payment to Entwistle equivalent to one year’s salary of around $750,000. The BBC justified the payment — double its contractual obligation of six months’ pay — by saying Entwistle would continue to help various inquiries into the scandals at the BBC that began with the sexual abuse affair involving Savile.

John Whittingdale, the head of a parliamentary panel scrutinising the British media, said, “A lot of people will be very surprised that somebody who was in the job for such a short period of time and then had to leave in these circumstances should be walking away with 450,000 pounds of license fee payers’ money.”

The license fee is a compulsory tax levied on television set owners.

"Certainly I would want to know from the trust why they think that’s appropriate, ” Whittingdale said. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office also challenged the payoff to Entwistle as “hard to justify,” but sent a political signal rebutting calls for Lord Patten himself to step down. “The important thing is for Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties,” Cameron’s office said. “That has to be the priority at the moment.”

Harriet Harman, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party, said the settlement “looks like a reward for failure.”

Accounts published in Britain’s newspapers, citing current and former BBC staff members familiar with the McAlpine investigation, said the Newsnight team had worked with an independent group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at the City University in London, in preparing the November 2 report.

The privately-funded bureau was founded in 2009 to investigate controversial issues and, in its own words, to provide a “gold standard” for reporting. It has used experienced journalists and students at the university’s journalism school, often in conjunction with mainstream media organisations like the BBC which have paid the bureau for its work.

The bureaus’s own board of trustees have said that they were “appalled by what appears to be a breach” of the bureau’s standard in the McAlpine reporting and that “remedial action will be taken against those responsible”, according to a statement by the bureau.

The bureau’s work for the November 2 BBC report was led by a former BBC reporter, Angus Stickler, who was seconded to Newsnight and worked jointly under a BBC producer and the bureau’s own editor, Iain Overton, who is himself a former BBC producer.

Several of those involved in the preparation of the Newsnight report have been quoted in British papers as saying that errors included not showing a former child home resident interviewed for the report, Steve Messham, a photograph of Lord McAlpine to identify him.

In addition, these people said, nobody at the bureau or at Newsnight had called Lord McAlpine, who lives in Italy, to seek his response, a step required by the BBC’s own rules for reporting.

The latest debacle has compounded the problems facing the network since accusations last month against Savile, who was suspected of having sexually abused as many as 300 young people over decades in the BBC’s studios and in children’s homes and hospitals where he gained ready access as a campaigner for children’s charities.

The BBC has been accused of covering up the Savile matter by canceling a “Newsnight” report on the accusations against him last December and going ahead with several Christmas specials that paid tribute to Savile.

At that time, Entwistle was in charge of all the BBC’s television productions and was seeking to succeed Mark Thompson, who stepped down in September after eight years as director general. Entwistle has said that he was not informed beforehand of the nature of the “Newsnight” investigation or the reasons for its cancellation.

On Monday, Thompson will begin his new post as president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. He has said he knew nothing beforehand about the “Newsnight” investigation of Savile or the decision to scrap it — not even that it involved allegations of pedophilia — and that he had never met Savile. But Thompson has said that he is willing to answer any questions put to him by a parliamentary inquiry or a raft of other investigations now under way.

Lord Patten said Sunday that he expected a new director to be appointed within weeks. On Saturday, he announced that Tim Davie, 45, an executive with a background in marketing who is director of the BBC’s radio operations, would serve as the acting director general.

In a statement to the BBC staff sent by email on Monday Davie said he would work to deliver “the best of British creativity.”

“There will be no handbrake turn,” he said.

““The last few days and weeks have been exceptionally tough for the BBC,” he said. “George’s departure on Saturday night was a sad moment — for George and the whole BBC. His manner of leaving matched what we know about him: he is a good and honorable man who stepped down in the interests of the BBC.”

He said there was “a lack of clarity in the lines of editorial command and control in BBC News” because executives caught up in the inquiry into the Savile affair were “unable to exercise their normal authority.”

“So I have decided to ensure total clarity and re-establish a single management to deal with all News output, Savile-related or otherwise,” the email said.

But British commentators are also asking whether Britain needs such a huge public-service broadcaster in an age of expanding media choices, and whether the BBC should retain the advantages granted to it under its royal charter and the mandatory $230-a-year license fee.

More immediately, the BBC has to deal with a rebellious mood in its own ranks with employees criticising a pattern of failed leadership. A persistent complaint has been that earlier reforms created a vast hierarchy of overpaid managers insulated from programming decisions.

It was a critique Lord Patten endorsed in his remarks at the weekend, saying at one point that “there are more senior leaders in the BBC than in the Chinese Communist Party.”

© 2012 The New York Times News Service

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