BBC Replaces Newsnight Editors Amid Savile Sex Scandal

The British Broadcasting Corp. will replace the senior editorial team of its current-affairs program “Newsnight” because of errors in investigative reports into child sex abuse allegations.

The editors “fell short of what was expected” first in canceling a probe into abuse claims against the late Jimmy Savile, an entertainer who had worked at the BBC for decades, and again when it published an erroneous report implying that retired U.K. politician Alistair McAlpine had molested a child, the BBC executive board said today.

The shakeup is the BBC’s reaction to a two-month probe, led by former British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc head of news Nick Pollard, that said problems with the BBC’s “rigid” management structure and sharing information contributed to a breakdown in decision making. The report also said that no undue pressure was put on editors to drop the investigation into Savile, which would have aired last year.

“The most worrying aspect of the Jimmy Savile story for the BBC was not the decision to drop the story itself,” the report said. “It was the complete inability to deal with the events that followed.”

Risk List

Pollard’s team interviewed journalists who worked on the program as well as former BBC director generals George Entwistle and Mark Thompson over the last two months. Entwistle resigned in November after less than two months on the job. The BBC is also investigating whether Savile had accomplices.

Thompson, who still worked at the BBC when the first “Newsnight” segment in question was canceled, has said he had no involvement in the investigation into Savile or the decision to cut the program. He took over as chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. on Nov. 12.

Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, said today that he has “no reason for disbelieving” Thompson’s version of events.

The BBC is taking disciplinary action against a number of individuals, acting director general Tim Davie said today, adding that Stephen Mitchell, deputy head of news, has resigned. He declined to comment further.

Mitchell was the editor who decided to take the Savile story off of the broadcaster’s Managed Risk Programs List, a program that flags controversial stories to management, in November 2011. According to the probe, Mitchell offered “no convincing reason” why he’d done it, suggesting that the risk of reputational harm to the BBC was not a compelling reason to list a story on the list and that it was “too early” to put Savile on it.

`Very Relevant'

Pollard rejected these explanations and said that other managers, including Patten and Helen Boaden, head of news, said reputational damage was a “very relevant” factor for a story’s inclusion on the list. Furthermore, other projects that were months away from publication, had been included in the list.

“The report raises serious questions around editorial and management issues at the BBC,” U.K. Culture Secretary Maria Miller said.

The Pollard probe also said some people within the BBC had suspicions about Savile’s activities.

When Savile became ill in May 2010, BBC head of events Nick Vaughan-Barratt sent a message to Entwistle, who was then the BBC’s controller of knowledge commissioning, about an obituary.

“I’d feel v queasy about an obit. I saw the real truth!!!” Vaughan-Barratt said in an e-mail, according to the probe.

Opened E-Mail

After Savile had died, commissioning editor Jan Younghusband sent an e-mail to Entwistle that said “I gather we didn’t prepare an obit because of the darker side of the story. So something celebrating a particular part of his TV career is probably better than the life story as there are aspects of this which are hard to tell.”

Entwistle said that he didn’t remember reading the e-mail. Still, a check of his account showed that the message had been opened, according to the report.

The “Newsnight” program was canceled by editor Peter Rippon, who has stepped away from his duties while the BBC investigates. The BBC in October corrected the journalist’s previous explanation on a blog for why he dropped the investigation.

While Rippon had said that “Newsnight” had no evidence against the BBC, there were some allegations of abusive conduct on the broadcaster’s premises, the broadcaster said that staff at the Duncroft school for girls, where Savile volunteered, may have also known about abuse, contrary to Rippon’s earlier statement.

‘Completely Incapable’

Rippon had also had said there was no new evidence that would have helped law enforcement investigate. The BBC then said that police may not have been aware of all of the allegations. The BBC has said it will decide on any potential disciplinary action against Rippon after the probes.

“When the full force of the affair broke in October 2012, the BBC’s management system proved completely incapable of dealing with it,” the report said today. “The efforts to get to the truth behind the Savile story proved beyond the combined efforts of the senior management, legal department, communications team and anyone else for well over a month. Leadership and organization seemed to be in short supply.”

Childcare Homes

The BBC on Dec. 18 agreed to pay Alistair McAlpine 185,000 pounds ($300,000) for an erroneous report on “Newsnight” linking the former Conservative party treasurer to abuse claims at childcare homes in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

A separate probe at the BBC, led by former Court of Appeal judge Janet Smith, is examining the culture and practices at the broadcaster during the years Savile worked there. That report is expected to take at least six months to complete.

The BBC has named Tony Hall as its next director general. Hall, currently the head of the Royal Opera House, previously worked at the BBC for 28 years and will start in March. The BBC controls the most popular television and radio channels in the U.K. and is funded by license fees from TV households in the country.

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