The latest dramatic twist in the BBC saga has seen the new director general resign and other senior staff step aside. What might be surprising is that it was not the now notorious Jimmy Savile case that actually brought them down, but the misidentification of a child abuser as a former prominent conservative politician.
BBC DG George Entwistle resigned on Saturday after it was confirmed that the BBC’s flagship news programme Newsnight had incorrectly implicated Lord McAlpine, a former Tory treasurer, in a story about paedophilia.
There has been considerable criticism of Entwistle's £450,000 pay off (a year’s salary) from members of parliament and the National Audit Office is due to look into the justification for the sum.
Tim Davie, who was director of audio and music, has stepped in as acting director general and has pledged to “get a grip” on the news operation and its journalism. It seems clear that Davie is a temporary solution, as BBC chairman Lord Patten is actively seeking candidates, the Guardian reported yesterday.
Both Helen Boaden, BBC director of news, and Steve Mitchell, her deputy, have stepped aside, although they held no direct responsibility for the programme. The Newsnight report was carried out in conjunction with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose editor, Iain Overton, resigned on Monday.
Entwistle’s 54 days as BBC director general were far from peaceful. Having taken up the job on 17 September, he had barely two weeks before the organisation was caught up in a full-blown scandal as it was revealed that former presenter of two of of the BBC’s top shows for a child/adolescent audience, Jimmy Savile, was to be accused of child abuse in an ITV documentary.
The two successive scandals, one relating to the culture of the organisation and attempts to cover up wrong-doing, the other just bad journalism, will undoubtedly scar the reputation of the usually respectable broadcaster.
However, “The Newsnight debacle is an aberration,” believes John Ware, a long-standing BBC Panorama reporter. “At almost every level, BBC journalism illuminates areas of our national life, and around the world, with a care and precision unmatched by other media outlets. On any objective view, the BBC is overwhelmingly a force for good and understanding,” Ware wrote in the Observer.
In his view, the Savile crisis “caused such paralysis at the top of the BBC that the people who normally would have been consulted, were, I am told, not directly involved on this occasion.”
Meanwhile, Entwistle’s predecessor in the DG role, Mark Thompson, is also under intense scrutiny. Having left the corporation to take up the job of CEO at The New York Times, where he has started work today, Thompson has been plagued with questions about whether he had anything to do with covering up allegations against Savile.
Media commentator Ken Doctor believes Thompson should not have taken up the post, for the sake of the future of the NYT. In a blog post on Saturday, Doctor suggests the Thompson story will overshadow the story of how 2012 has been a positive year for The Times, and will bring the paper into the “media mess” on the other side of the Atlantic.
As Doctor notes, Times journalists have already tackled the story and made it clear that Thompson will not be given any slack in their reporting just because he is their CEO.
However, Chairman Arthur Sulzberger seems to have decided that it is not worth giving up the promising new CEO, and he welcomed Thompson warmly in a note to staff, published in Capital New York: "Mark will lead us as we continue our digital transformation, bolster our international growth, drive our productivity and introduce new technologies that will help us become better storytellers and enrich the experience for our readers and viewers," Sulzberger wrote.
Timeline of events:
2 October: First allegations against Jimmy Savile became public
3 October: ITV airs documentary about claims that Savile sexually abused children
4 October: London’s Metropolitan police announces that it will take the lead on assessing the complaints
5 October: George Entwistle proclaims that he is “appalled” by the content of the ITV documentary
13 October: Mark Thompson makes first statement to The New York Times
22 October: Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon steps aside
24 October: Thompson gives an interview to The New York Times
10 November: Entwistle resigns, Tim Davie appointed acting DG
12 November: Thompson starts at The New York Times
- BBC’s Director for News, Helen Boaden, "steps aside" and Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering, steps in
- BBC’s Deputy Director for News, Steve Mitchell, "steps aside" and Ceri Thomas, editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, steps in
- Iain Overton of BIJ resigns