Saturday, November 10, 2012

BBC Director Quits in Furor Over Coverage of Sexual Abuse

November 10, 2012

BBC Director Quits in Furor Over Coverage of Sexual Abuse

New York Times

LONDON — After weeks of turmoil over the BBC’s coverage of a spreading pedophile scandal, the broadcaster’s director general, George Entwistle, resigned on Saturday night, bowing to a wave of condemnation including from a BBC television anchor, who depicted him as having lost control of “a rudderless ship heading towards the rocks.”

Mr. Entwistle’s sudden departure as the BBC’s chief executive was prompted by outrage over a report last week on “Newsnight,” one of the network’s flagship current affairs programs, that wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician in a pedophile scandal involving a children’s home in Wales.

Mr. Entwistle said the report, broadcast on Nov. 2, reflected “unacceptable journalistic standards” and never should have been broadcast.

That broadcast has only compounded the problems facing the network since the revelation last month that a longtime BBC television host, Jimmy Savile, was suspected of having sexually abused perhaps hundreds of young people over the course of decades, sometimes on the BBC premises. The network has been accused of covering up the accusations by canceling a Newsnight report on the Savile case last year, when Mr. Entwistle was a senior executive at the network.

Mr. Entwistle was barely two months into the director’s job, heading one of the world’s largest media organizations. His departure followed the suspension in the past month of a number of senior producers as the BBC has struggled to find a path through what many commentators have described as its greatest crisis in decades.

A 50-year-old career broadcaster who rose through the ranks of BBC producers, Mr. Entwistle made his announcement on the steps of the BBC’s new billion-dollar headquarters in central London. With the BBC’s chairman, Chris Patten, standing gloomily beside him, Mr. Entwistle said that he had decided that resigning was “the honorable thing to do.”

“The wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader,” he said. He added that the intense public scrutiny of the BBC that has resulted from the pedophile scandal should not lead people “to lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people of the greatest talent and the highest integrity.”

Mr. Patten, the BBC chairman, said that Tim Davie, 45, the BBC’s director of audio and music, would become the acting director general.

Mr. Patten, whose own position may now be imperiled by the wave of demands for the BBC to brought to account over the scandal, did not attempt to disguise the gravity of the situation, alluding to the “unacceptable mistakes, the unacceptably shoddy journalism” that had culminated in the Nov. 2 “Newsnight” program.

That program focused on allegations of abuses by a senior politician in the 1970s and 1980s at a children’s home in north Wales. The “Newsnight” broadcast did not identify the politician but said that his name was being widely circulated on the Internet.

On Thursday, The Guardian said the politician was Alistair McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer, and that he was the victim of mistaken identity.

Mr. McAlpine, now 70 and in poor health, said Friday that the allegations against him were “wholly false and defamatory” and warned that he planned to sue.

That was followed by a statement by the former resident of the children’s home who had made the abuse allegation, Steve Messham, who said he had now seen a photograph of Mr. McAlpine and was sure that he was not the man who had abused him.

In an extensive apology on Friday night, “Newsnight” acknowledged that it had not shown a photograph of Mr. McAlpine to Mr. Messham before interviewing him for the program, and that its investigators had not contacted Mr. McAlpine to give him an opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Mr. Entwistle’s announcement, immediately after the BBC had ended its main Saturday night newscast, set off a new round of recriminations, including many from well-known journalists at the BBC.

In a statement, released by his agents on Twitter, the lead anchor of “Newsnight,” Jeremy Paxman, appeared to lay the blame for the fiasco outside “Newsnight.” He said Mr. Entwistle had been “brought low by cowards and incompetents,” whom he did not name, and by a management that enforced deep cuts on program budgets while “bloating” management ranks. “That is how you arrive at the current mess on ‘Newsnight,’ ” he said.

Another well-known BBC presenter, Jonathan Dimbleby, a member of a family of TV and radio anchors who have been prominent since World War II, spoke of the BBC having become “a rudderless ship.” Will Wyatt, a former managing director of BBC TV, a post held by Mr. Entwistle before his promotion to the director general’s post in September, demanded that the BBC management “sort this out quickly, get to the bottom of who said what, and be swift and tough.” He added a prediction that Mr. Entwistle’s would not be the only prominent head to roll. “I can’t believe everyone on the payroll will be there in two months’ time,” he said.

Other commentators questioned whether “Newsnight,” which has been aired every weekday night for more than 30 years, will survive the crisis. Among those facing questions about their roles in the decision not to broadcast a news segment on Mr. Savile was the former director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, the incoming president and chief executive of The New York Times Company, who has said he was not involved in the decision.

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