The broadcaster that became one of the best known and most trusted names in journalism is a “ghastly mess” and needs rebuilding to regain public confidence, the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, said after a reporting scandal that ended the career of the BBC’s director-general after only 54 days on the job.
George Entwistle, 50, resigned Saturday night, plunging the BBC into its deepest crisis in decades and leaving it in need of a “thorough, structural, radical overhaul,” Mr. Patten said on BBC TV Sunday morning. Mr. Entwistle left the day after he admitted knowing nothing about a BBC Newsnight investigation that led to the naming – wrongly as it turned out – of Lord Alistair McAlpine as a child molester.
Some of the Sunday papers, including the titles owned by Rupert Murdoch, called for the ouster of Mr. Patten as the damage inflicted by the scandal threatened to take down a small army of BBC reporters and executives. Speaking on a Sky television program Sunday, he vowed to clean up the BBC. “But I will not take my marching orders from Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers,” he said.
On Monday, the two most senior figures at BBC News – Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News, and her deputy Steve Mitchell – stepped aside. They have handed over their responsibilities to others for the time being “to address the lack of clarity around the editorial chain of command,” the BBC said.
“Consideration is now being given to the extent to which individuals should be asked to account further for their actions and if appropriate, disciplinary action will be taken,” the statement added.
Mr. Entwistle said he did the “honourable thing” by resigning, but his departure only deepened the scandal when it emerged that the BBC Trust, the broadcaster’s governing body, will allow him to walk out the door with a full year’s salary.
“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 of licence fee payer’s money,” John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, told the Press Association.
Mr. Patten, a former Conservative cabinet minister, was under pressure because, as chairman of the BBC Trust, he ultimately approved the hiring of Mr. Entwistle, who proved to be wholly inadequate for the job. Throughout Sunday, Mr. Patten conducted interviews to insist that the BBC could regain the public confidence it had lost because of the McAlpine affair and earlier revelations that the Newsnight program had dropped an investigation into the late Jimmy Savile, the popular BBC entertainer who has been accused of serial pedophilia.
“The BBC is and has been hugely respected around the world,” Mr. Patten said. “But we have to earn that. If the BBC loses that, then it is over.”
The immediate cause of Mr. Entwistle’s resignation was the Newsnight program that, in early November, reported the claims of former care-home resident, Steven Messham, who said he was sexually abused by a prominent 1980s Tory politician. The internet traffic later named him as Lord McAlpine, which came as a surprise to the lord. He denied the allegations and threatened to sue the BBC. Mr. Messham quickly apologized to Mr. McAlpine for falsely identifying him.
On Nov. 10, the BBC also apologized, but that was not the shocker. That came when Mr. Entwistle appeared that morning on BBC radio’s Today program and admitted that he was unaware of the Newsnight report until the day after it was broadcast. It also emerged that Newsnight did not even show a picture of Mr. McAlpine to Mr. Messham so that Mr. Messham could identify him.
That evening, Mr. Entwistle, who said the Newsnight program featuring Mr. Messham should never have been aired because it reflected “unacceptable journalistic standards,” fell on his sword.
Newsnight’s erroneous McAlpine report could not have come at a worse time for the BBC, which was already reeling from the Savile crisis. In December, 2011, Newsnight dropped an investigation into allegations of Mr. Savile’s sexual misconduct, including reports that he had molested patients as they lay in hospital.
Britain’s commercial ITV network aired its own documentary into the Savile affair in early October, after which police launched a criminal investigation into the sexual-abuse allegations. Mr. Entwistle, the new BBC boss, announced inquiries of his own, including one probing the reasons behind the shelving of the Newsnight probe.
Mr. Entwistle’s resignation did more than expose shockingly amateurish journalism at the BBC. It also triggered a media feeding frenzy that pitted newspapers, some of which were bloodied during the infamous phone-hacking scandal, against what they saw as a “righteous” BBC. “As far as the papers are concerned, it’s payback time,” said the former editor of one of Britain’s biggest dailies. “The papers’ perception is that BBC had attacked them vociferously and revelled that the papers were in trouble.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Max Hastings, a best-selling author and former editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, called the media frenzy “a cannibal feast for newspapers.”
The relationship between the BBC and many of the papers, notably the right and centre-right press, has been somewhere between strained and outright hostile for years, says James Graham, a former senior BBC executive who later ran Border Television, an independent commercial broadcaster now owned by ITV Plc. “The newspapers always wanted to see a smaller BBC,” he said in an interview. “The Murdoch press and the right-wing press were too left wing for them.”
The papers also resented the BBC’s ample and highly popular free web sites, which made it difficult for a few of them to put their own sites behind pay walls. At times, the attacks on the BBC constituted an all-out campaign. In 2009, Rupert Mudoch’s son James, who is now deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., the family controlled holding company, used a keynote speech in Edinburgh to describe the BBC’s reach as “chilling” and said that “the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision.”
The BBC considered the attack hypocritical, given the vast reach of the Murdoch media empire in Britain, where it owns the mass-market Sun tabloid, The Times, The Sunday Times and controls BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster with a stock-market value of £12.4-billion.
But the Murdoch press would soon suffer a terrible blow to its credibility in the phone-hacking scandal, which reached its height last year and resulted in the closing of Mr. Murdoch’s News of the World, Britain’s biggest Sunday paper. It also led to the arrest of Rebekah Brooks, a former News of the World and Sun editor who became Mr. Murdoch’s chief lieutenant in Britain until she resigned in 2011.
Between the phone-hacking scandal and the BBC’s twin Newsnight scandals, the British media have taken confidence-crushing blows in the past two years. Mr. Graham, the former BBC executives, thinks the BBC requires a “root and branch” management overhaul to bolster its journalistic integrity. He thinks, ultimately, that the public will not lose trust in the BBC. “There is still a massive amount of support for the BBC because they don’t trust the press as much,” he said.
With a report from ReutersReport Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: