BBC executives step aside in backwash of sex abuse scandal
By Karla Adam,
LONDON — The BBC’s news chief and her deputy “stepped aside” Monday, just two days after the broadcaster’s chief resigned amid tough questions over the network’s handling of an escalating child sex-abuse scandal.
Helen Boaden, the BBC’s head of news, and her deputy Steve Mitchell relinquished their responsibilities following a report by the BBC into how the broadcaster came to air a program Nov. 2 that falsely implicated a former Conservative politician in a child abuse case.
In a statement Monday, the BBC said neither Boaden nor Mitchell “had anything at all to do” with the problematic investigation that wrongly accused the politician. Still, the broadcaster said, the news executives are “not in a position” to oversee news coverage until a probe of the errant report is complete.
“Consideration is now being given to the extent to which individuals should be asked to account further for their actions,” the statement said. “And, if appropriate, disciplinary action will be taken.”
Trustees of the global broadcaster have begun a desperate search for a new director general after George Entwistle, 50, quit after conceding that he did not know about the serious allegations that implicated the politician before the episode was broadcast.
With the BBC facing its deepest crisis in years, government officials have called on the organization to find a way to regain the public’s confidence.
Speaking on the BBC on Sunday, Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, said that the corporation needed to restore “trust and credibility” to rebuild itself as a “renowned national institution” and a “worldwide brand.”
Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, the broadcaster’s governing body, said on the BBC on Sunday that Entwistle resigned “extremely honorably” after taking responsibility for “awful journalism” in a program by BBC’s “Newsnight,” a prestigious current affairs program.
Patten said that the broadcaster hoped to have someone new at the helm within weeks. In the meantime, Tim Davie, 45, formerly the head of audio and music, has stepped in as acting chief.
Patten also suggested that the BBC, which has 22,000 employees and is one of the world’s largest broadcasters, needed a “thorough, structural, radical overhaul.”
The BBC has had a difficult few months. Within days of taking over from Mark Thompson, who on Monday began work as the new chief executive of the New York Times Co., Entwistle began dealing with a scandal over the late Jimmy Savile, a former star presenter on the BBC.
Last year, after looking into allegations that Savile had sexually abused children, some of them at BBC headquarters, “Newsnight” shelved its investigation, reportedly because of a lack of evidence.
ITV, a rival broadcaster, ran a damning exposé last month. Police now say that Savile may have abused more than 300 victims.
“Newsnight” became embroiled in a new controversy after it aired an interview Nov. 2 with Steve Messham, who asserted that he was sexually abused at a care home in North Wales.
Although “Newsnight” did not name the alleged abuser, it described him as a prominent figure in Margaret Thatcher’s government. The name of Alistair McAlpine, a former treasurer for the Conservative Party, soon appeared online.
On Friday, Messham retracted his claims, saying it was a case of mistaken identity.
Entwistle’s position arguably became untenable following a ferocious grilling Saturday morning by BBC presenter John Humphrys, sometimes called the “Rottweiler” of radio news.
Entwistle, who had already been dubbed “Incurious George” by the British press, said he hadn’t been aware of the serious allegations in the “Newsnight” program before it aired.
David Mellor, a former cabinet minister, said after the interview that Entwistle came across as “so out of touch, it made me think Winnie the Pooh would have been more effective.”
On Saturday evening, after only 54 days on the job, Entwistle resigned.
The mounting criticism leveled against the BBC comes at a time of deep uncertainty for the British press as it nervously awaits a report by Brian Leveson, a judge who led an inquiry into press standards following the phone-hacking scandal last year that rocked the British establishment.
Leveson’s report, expected this month, could have a profound impact on how the print press is regulated.
On Monday, the BBC also came under fire following its decision to give Entwistle a $715,000 severance payment, even though he lasted less than two months on the job.
Steve Field, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, told reporters that giving Entwistle a 12-month payoff, even though he was entitled to only half that in his contract, was “hard to justify.”
But the corporation’s governing body said that the settlement reflected Entwistle’s ongoing involvement with the various internal inquiries the BBC has set up to analyze its handling of the Savile investigation.