BBC Chief Quits after "Shoddy Journalism" Failures

Saturday, 10 Nov 2012 07:59 PM


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BBC Director General George Entwistle resigned on Saturday, just two months into the job, after the state-funded broadcaster put out a program denounced by its chairman as shoddy journalism.

The BBC, reeling from revelations that a former star presenter was a paedophile, brought further problems on its head when a flagship news program, "Newsnight," aired a mistaken allegation that a former top politician sexually abused children.

The BBC had already issued a full apology on Friday, but on Saturday Entwistle had to admit under questioning from his own journalists that he had not known in advance about the "Newsnight report," weeks after being accused of being too hands-off over a previous scandal involving the same program.

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In his resignation letter, Entwistle said the unacceptable journalistic standards of the "Newsnight" film had damaged the public's confidence in the 90-year-old BBC.

"As the director general of the BBC, I am ultimately responsible for all content as the editor-in-chief, and I have therefore decided that the honorable thing for me to do is to step down."

Entwistle succeeded Mark Thompson, who is set to take over at The New York Times Co, in September and almost immediately faced one of the biggest crises in the history of the BBC, funded by an annual licence fee levied on all TV viewers.

This was the revelation by rival broadcaster ITV last month that the late Jimmy Savile, one of the most recognisable personalities on British television in the 1970s and 80s, had sexually abused young girls, some on BBC premises.

Suggestions have surfaced of a paedophile ring inside the broadcaster at the time and a BBC cover-up.

Entwistle was condemned for the BBC's slow response over the Savile furore and then lambasted after it emerged that "Newsnight" had axed an expose into Savile shortly after his death and gone ahead with planned tributes instead.

His appearance before a parliamentary committee provoked mockery, with one lawmaker saying he had shown a "lamentable lack of knowledge" of what was going on at his own organisation.

Thompson has also had to explain what he knew about the Savile episode and has faced questions from staff at The New York Times over whether he is still the right person to take one of the biggest jobs in American newspaper publishing.

For Entwistle, the knives were sharpening on Friday after the BBC had to make an apology following an admission "Newsnight" had broadcast a mistaken allegation that a former politician, later identified on the Internet as a close ally of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, had sexually abused children.

The final straw came when under questioning from his own journalists, he said he had not known in advance about the "Newsnight" report nor who the alleged abuser was until the name appeared in social media.

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"He showed no sign of being in control the first time (over the Jimmy Savile situation) and this morning's interview on the "Today" program I think was fatal, because it happened again," said Steve Hewlett, a media consultant and former BBC editor.

"You could forgive him for the Savile situation, he could have survived that if he'd shown he was on top of this situation and he didn't," Hewlett told Reuters.

Senior lawmakers said Entwistle's decision was right, saying it appeared the BBC, long affectionately known as "Auntie" and widely respected around the world, was systematically incapable of addressing its failings.

"It is vital that credibility and public trust in this important national institution is restored," Culture Secretary Maria Miller said in a statement. "It is now crucial that the BBC puts the systems in place to ensure it can make first class news and current affairs programs."

John Whittingdale, chairman of parliament's powerful media committee, said the crisis had done enormous damage to public trust and confidence, and that Entwistle's departure did not spell the end of the matter.

"There are still a lot of questions which need answering. Who did take the decision to approve that ("Newsnight") program because quite plainly it was a deeply flawed decision," he told Reuters.

The sudden departure of Entwistle, and the journalistic mistakes that prompted it, is the latest drama to hit the British media industry after two years of soul-searching sparked by a phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's newspaper empire.

Any lack of integrity at the BBC is serious for a broadcaster that has been respected for decades and is funded by the public. A judge-led inquiry into media standards prompted by the illegality at a Murdoch tabloid is due to be published soon.

Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC's governing body and long a prominent figure in British politics, said it was one of the "saddest nights" of his public life.

"George has very honorably offered us his resignation because of the unacceptable mistakes and the unacceptable shoddy journalism which has caused so much controversy," he said.

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"He has behaved as editor with huge honor and courage and would that the rest of the world always behaved the same."

He announced that Tim Davie, the BBC's Director of Audio and Music, would be the acting director general.

Some commentators have said the hierarchical management of the 22,000-strong organization left it unable to respond to large-scale problems and criticism.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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