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BBC News Director Steps Aside as Abuse Scandal Expands

Former BBC Director General George Entwistle
BBC Director General George Entwistle resigned Nov. 10 after a BBC program erroneously implied that a senior politician had molested a young boy. Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

British Broadcasting Corp.’s two most senior news executives stepped aside, expanding the fallout from errors in child sex abuse investigations that caused Director General George Entwistle to quit over the weekend.

News Director Helen Boaden and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, have given up their responsibilities during a probe into why a BBC “Newsnight” program investigating sex abuse claims against former entertainer Jimmy Savile was canceled last year. Entwistle quit this weekend after a separate “Newsnight” investigation erroneously implied that a senior politician had molested a boy.

The scandal has thrown the license-fee-funded broadcaster into disarray and intensified criticism against the 90-year-old institution that runs the U.K.’s most-watched TV channels. The head of BBC’s supervisory body called for a “radical overhaul” of the corporation as it seeks to justify the annual 3.6 billion pounds ($5.7 billion) it gets from U.K. households.

“Entwistle is right to step down and I’m not surprised Helen Boaden has stepped aside, but it’s premature to conclude the BBC is a broken and valueless institution and that the management structure is at fault,” said Claire Enders, a media analyst at Enders Analysis in London.

Temporary Replacements

Boaden and Mitchell are being temporarily replaced by Fran Unsworth, head of BBC news gathering, and Ceri Thomas, editor of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program.

BBC said that Boaden and Mitchell had nothing to do with the “failed ‘Newsnight’ investigation,” which wrongly implied child abuse by politician Alistair McAlpine. Still, the probes into the BBC’s practices will mean some officials would be “unable to exercise their normal authority.”

The broadcaster is conducting two investigations, one addressing the culture and practices of BBC when Savile worked there and one on why the episode of “Newsnight” discussing Savile was canceled. The inquiries also will look into the role of executives such as Mark Thompson, Entwistle’s predecessor.

BBC needs a “thorough, radical, structural overhaul” of its management, Chris Patten, chairman of the panel that oversees the corporation, the BBC Trust, said on BBC’s “Andrew Marr” program yesterday. If the corporation loses public trust, “it’s over,” he said.

Entwistle, who served also as editor-in-chief and took over from Thompson less than two months ago, resigned after a recent “Newsnight” report erroneously implied a senior politician had molested a young boy. Entwistle cited unacceptable journalistic standards involved in the “Newsnight” broadcast in his resignation statement. Entwistle first joined London-based BBC in 1989 as a broadcast journalism trainee.

Internal Inquiry

BBC Scotland Director Ken MacQuarrie, who was asked by the broadcaster’s Executive Board to investigate the circumstances around the recent “Newsnight” story, said “basic journalistic checks were not completed,” citing a lack of clarity around who was responsible for the news process.

In response to MacQuarrie’s findings, the board said in an e-mailed statement that it would immediately create a new editorial chain of command, with Karen O’Connor taking charge of “Newsnight,” and disciplinary proceedings starting soon. The board also said it would be seeking Entwistle’s replacement outside BBC, with “a proven track record of overseeing journalism.”

Year’s Salary

Entwistle will receive a full year’s salary of 450,000 pounds in return for his resignation, the BBC Trust said in a statement. Patten said the payment was justified to resolve the matter quickly and maintain Entwistle’s cooperation on topics including inquiries into Savile.

Patten said he would have had to speak to trustees about firing the director general if Entwistle hadn’t resigned.

“The alternative was long drawn-out discussion and continuing uncertainty at a time when the BBC needs all of its focus to be on resolving fundamental issues of trust in BBC journalism,” Patten said in a statement today.

Maria Miller, the U.K. secretary of state for culture, media and sport, said the payout was difficult to justify considering the circumstances around Entwistle’s resignation.

Speaking in Parliament today, Miller said BBC needs “a long-term period of stability” as it is in the “midst of the most serious of crises.”

BBC, with about 22,000 employees, runs operations span international news gathering to entertainment, sports and educational shows. The broadcaster is affectionately nicknamed “Auntie” in the U.K. for its familiarity to generations of viewers. In the year through March, BBC got more than 70 percent of its 5.09 billion-pound income from license fees paid by U.K. households with TVs.

‘Single Management’

BBC said today it will “re-establish a single management to deal with all output” to “address the lack of clarity around the editorial chain of command.”

Acting Director General Tim Davie is expected to outline his plan for handling issues around the “Newsnight” program on McAlpine today “as a first step in restoring public confidence,” the BBC Trust said.

The “Newsnight” errors were “accidents waiting to happen, given the structure of the BBC,” said Lis Howell, who teaches TV journalism and is director of broadcasting at City University London. “It’s a bloated management structure and there are too many generals. This is just another example of confusion there.”

Scandal Years

The BBC turmoil follows a scandal-ridden couple of years for the U.K. press. London police, in addition to investigating claims that Savile may have used his position as a TV host and volunteer to sexually abuse more than 300 people as far back as 1959, are still looking into claims that reporters at News Corp., owner of the most-read U.K. newspapers, hacked into mobile phones and bribed police for stories.

Thompson, who led BBC for eight years until September, has said he wasn’t aware of the abuse allegations and didn’t participate in stopping “Newsnight” from airing its Savile segment. Thompson started his new position as chief executive officer of New York Times Co. today.

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