BBC Faces Overhaul as False Report Leads to Chief’s Exit
The British Broadcasting Corp., the 90-year-old media organization that runs U.K.’s most-watched TV channels, was urged by the head of its supervisory body to embark on a “radical overhaul” after errors surrounding a sexual-abuse investigation forced its director general to quit.
George Entwistle, 50, resigned Nov. 10 after a BBC program erroneously implied that a senior politician had molested a young boy. That followed revelations last month that management had failed to stop an alleged pedophile ring operating out of BBC studios and decades of abuse by entertainer Jimmy Savile.
The scandal intensifies the scrutiny of the license-fee- funded broadcaster, already facing criticism from private and publicly traded competitors. An overhaul may mean changes to how the BBC’s 22,000 employees are organized and how its journalists are overseen as the broadcaster seeks to justify the annual 3.61 billion pounds ($5.7 billion) it receives from U.K. households.
The BBC needs a “thorough, radical, structural overhaul” of its management, said Chris Patten, who is chairman of the panel that oversees the corporation, on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr” program yesterday. If the corporation loses public trust, “it’s over,” he said.
Entwistle’s resignation is the latest in 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.
Patten said he is considering the creation of a more powerful position as head of news at the BBC, saying the future director general will need “strong support” in that area. The BBC needed to devolve decision-making, Patten said, adding that he had once joked that “there were more senior leaders in the BBC than there were in the Chinese Communist party.”
On Nov. 2, “Newsnight” aired false claims by an abuse victim involving an ex-Conservative Party politician at child- care homes in Wales. Even though the politician, Alistair McAlpine, wasn’t named on “Newsnight,” he was identified on the Internet as the alleged abuser, the BBC said.
One abuse victim, Steve Messham, has apologized to McAlpine, Tory treasurer during Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, saying McAlpine didn’t assault him.
Patten said he would discuss the future of “Newsnight” with acting Director-General Tim Davie, while a permanent replacement for Entwistle will be appointed within weeks.
U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May said on the “Andrew Marr” program that Entwistle’s resignation was the “right decision,” and added that the BBC needs to work hard to re-establish public trust in its journalism.
Entwistle, who served also as editor-in-chief and took over from former Director General Mark Thompson less than two months ago, cited unacceptable journalistic standards involved in the “Newsnight” broadcast in his resignation statement. Entwistle first joined the BBC in 1989 as a broadcast journalism trainee.
Patten played down suggestions he may resign as well, saying those calls are coming come from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. newspapers. “I am not going to take my marching orders from Rupert Murdoch’s papers,” he told Sky News.
“I now have to make sure that, in the interests of the license-fee payer and the audience, that the BBC has a grip, that we get ourselves back onto the road,” Patten told the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.” “I think that my job is to make sure that we learn the lessons of those inquiries and that we restore confidence and trust in the BBC.”
Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t believe the BBC is facing an “existential crisis,” a government official said. The official, who declined to be named in line with U.K. government policy, said Cameron had emphasized that Patten needs to take charge of the situation and that the government expects him to show a grip of what needs to be done.
“George Enwistle was right to resign because he was editor in chief,” Conservative lawmaker John Whittingdale, who chairs Parliament’s media oversight committee, told the BBC’s “The World This Weekend” radio program. “The job of the trust is to oversee the BBC. I don’t think there is a case for Lord Patten to go but certainly Lord Patten has to act very swiftly.”
BBC, founded in 1922, runs operations that span from 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.
Rivals have criticized BBC for years, with media companies including News Corp. (NWSA) saying that it lacks accountability and suggesting that it should compete less with private companies.
The BBC is conducting two investigations, one addressing the culture and practices of the BBC when Savile worked there and one on why the episode of “Newsnight” discussing Savile was canceled. The BBC’s internal inquiries also will look into the role of executives such as Thompson.
Entwistle told a U.K. parliamentary committee last month that he failed to ask any questions after being warned Savile was the subject of the “Newsnight” probe that could interfere with tribute programs following the star’s death, saying he didn’t think it would be appropriate to interfere.
Thompson, who led the 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 is due to start his new position as chief executive officer of the New York Times on Monday. Robert Christie, a spokesman for the New York Times Co. (NYT), said Thompson will start the job as planned. He declined to comment further.
Savile started at the BBC in 1964 and worked there for more than three decades. He was the host of “Top of the Pops” and “Jim’ll Fix It.”
London’s Metropolitan Police said yesterday they arrested a man in his seventies in Cambridgeshire, England, on suspicion of sexual offenses. He is the third person to be arrested under “Operation Yewtree,” the investigation into alleged sexual abuses by Savile and others. The police didn’t name the man.
To contact the reporters on this story: Amy Thomson in London at email@example.com; Kristen Schweizer in London at firstname.lastname@example.org; Kitty Donaldson in London at email@example.com