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BBC showed 'basic' journalistic failings in abuse story

An internal investigation at the BBC has found “basic” journalistic failures in a news report which wrongly accused a senior politician of child abuse.

New Broadcasting house in central London
New Broadcasting house in central London
Image: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images

THE BBC SHOWED “basic” journalistic failures in a news report in which it wrongly accused a senior politician of child abuse, an internal investigation found on Monday.

The findings came after the BBC’s acting director-general Tim Davie pledged to “get a grip” of the deepening crisis at the world’s largest publicly funded broadcaster as two top news executives stood aside.

The investigation into the allegations that a former Conservative party treasurer, Alistair McAlpine, had abused children at a home in Wales in the 1970s found there had been a failure to complete “basic journalistic checks”.

The report by the BBC’s Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie found that journalists on the flagship Newsnight programme which broadcast the claims had failed to show the politician’s accuser a photograph of McAlpine.

These failings were “unacceptable”, MacQuarrie said.

He also highlighted confusion about who had the ultimate responsibility for “final editorial sign-off” on the story, which the BBC had to retract after it was shown.

Newsnight’s editorial management structure had been “seriously weakened” because the editor had stepped aside over the decision last year to shelve a story about star BBC presenter Jimmy Savile’s abuse of under-age women.

Police now say they believe Savile abused more than 300 victims over a 40-year period. He died last year at the age of 84.

The furore over the politician, coupled with the intense scrutiny over Savile, has left the BBC facing one of the worst crises in its 90-year history and in danger of seeing trust in its journalism seriously eroded.

Director-general steps down

George Entwistle stepped down as director-general on Saturday after the botched Newsnight report and the BBC’s response to the Savile scandal.

On Monday, head of news Helen Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell were asked to stand aside pending an internal review into the way that the claims against Savile were handled by Newsnight.

Davie, the former PepsiCo executive temporarily handed control of the BBC after just seven years at the organisation, said his job was to restore leadership following Entwistle’s sudden resignation.

He hailed Entwistle’s departure as the act of “an honourable man”.

“My job now is to get a grip of the situation and take action,” Davie told BBC News.

Davie, who has little journalistic experience, said in an email to staff that he was “determined to give the BBC the clarity and leadership it deserves” until a permanent replacement is found.

Journalists in the corporation’s 6,000-strong news operation complain that excessive layers of management have led to confused decision-making.

Davie said Boaden and Mitchell would be temporarily standing down as he sought to implement a “single management to deal with all News output, Savile-related or otherwise”.

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The BBC insisted that they had not been sacked and were expected to return to their jobs after the inquiry by former Sky News boss Nick Pollard was published into why the report about Savile never made it on the air.

The BBC also found itself embroiled in a row over the revelation that Entwistle would receive a £450,000 (565,000-euro, $715,000) payoff — the equivalent of a year’s salary.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the sum was “hard to justify”.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller told parliament on Monday the BBC was facing the “most serious of crises” and said it must act to restore public confidence.

The corporation has warned that more heads are likely to roll over the Newsnight furore.

Former director-general Mark Thompson, who took up his new job as chief executive of the New York Times on Monday, said he was “very saddened” by the crisis at the BBC.

Interviewed by ITV News, he said: “I believe the BBC is the world’s greatest broadcaster, and I’ve got no doubt that it will once again regain the public’s trust both in the UK and around the world.”

- © AFP, 2012

Read: New York Times in spotlight as ex-BBC chief takes reins>

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