LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s public broadcaster, reeling from revelations that one of its former stars was a paedophile, was struggling to contain damage on Saturday after a flagship news programme aired a mistaken allegation that an ex-politician sexually abused children.
The BBC had already issued a full apology on Friday, but on Saturday its director general 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 the previous scandal on the same programme.
“In retrospect I wish this had been brought to my attention,” said George Entwistle, who is also the BBC’s editor-in-chief, adding that he should not be expected to be familiar with the BBC’s entire news output.
Entwistle, in the job for only two months, said he would not resign. But criticism was growing that a 90-year-old institution affectionately known as “Auntie” was systematically incapable of addressing its failings.
“I listened to the director general with increasing disbelief,” John Whittingdale, chairman of parliament’s powerful media committee, told Reuters. “The level of failure of management at every level within the BBC, up to and including the director general, is just extraordinary.”
The BBC and its bosses have been under huge pressure since a rival broadcaster revealed last month that the late Jimmy Savile, one of the most recognisable personalities on British television in the 1970s and 80s, was a prolific sex offender.
Suggestions have surfaced of a paedophile ring inside the broadcaster at the time and a BBC cover-up. To complicate matters for Entwistle, Newsnight pulled a planned expose of Savile shortly after his death last year, and the BBC went ahead with tribute shows.
Having been widely criticised for not broadcasting that expose, which led to its editor stepping aside, Newsnight is now being lambasted for its November 2 report on sexual abuse at children’s care homes in North Wales during the 1970s.
Steve Messham told Newsnight that a senior Conservative had raped him when Messham was a child in one of the homes.
Newsnight did not identify the politician, but the name of Alistair McAlpine, Conservative Party treasurer from 1975 to 1990, quickly appeared on the Internet and social media sites.
On Friday McAlpine went public to rigorously deny the allegations and threaten legal action.
Hours later, Messham said he had misidentified McAlpine to Newsnight. The programme admitted it had not approached McAlpine for a comment, or shown Messham a picture of McAlpine, before airing the report.
Castigated for what he agreed was a slow response to the Savile disclosures, Entwistle demanded a report on the incident by Sunday and suspended all Newsnight investigations.
“If people made mistakes, and they made bad mistakes, they will have to answer for them,” he told BBC TV. “If disciplinary action is necessary, it will be taken.”
But critics said his explanation only raised more questions about whether the hierarchical management of the 22,000-strong organisation, funded by an annual licence fee levied on all TV viewers, was too unwieldy to handle crises.
The erroneous Newsnight report had been cleared by senior managers and lawyers, and commentators queried why Entwistle had been kept in the dark in the wake of the furore over Savile.
“(Entwistle) says all the right things and he’s done the right thing ... but still, does he come across as someone who has got his hands round the throat of the problem?” Steve Hewlett, a media consultant and former BBC editor, told Reuters.
“Who allowed Newsnight to behave in this way? It has to come to his door.”
Whittingdale did not go as far as calling for Entwistle to quit, but said he would face stern questions when he appears before parliamentary media committee again in two weeks. His last appearance in October in the wake of the Savile revelations was described by one lawmaker as “lamentable”.
The BBC Trust, the broadcaster’s governing body, said it had “impressed upon the Director-General the need to get to the bottom of this as a matter of the utmost urgency and will expect appropriate action to be taken as quickly as possible”.
Mark Borkowski, one of Britain’s leading public relations experts, said the BBC were “the architects of their own crisis”.
“The BBC ... is now culturally inept at dealing with a situation of this size,” he said.
Editing by Kevin Liffey