Last updated: November 11, 2012 7:59 pm

BBC left reeling by ‘Newsnight’ scandal

george entwistle©Reuters

George Entwistle resigned after only 54 days as director-general and was paid £475,000

The BBC was scrambling on Sunday to limit the damage done by a scandal that has seen director-general George Entwistle quit and chairman Lord Patten call for a “radical overhaul” of the publicly funded British broadcaster.

The BBC boss resigned after only eight weeks in the post following the admission that he had not known about an investigation aired on Newsnight, a BBC news programme, that mistakenly linked a senior political figure to child abuse.

It is the second scandal to rock the broadcaster in the past month following allegations that television presenter Jimmy Savile sexually abused children.

The BBC Trust on Sunday approved a £450,000 pay-off for Mr Entwistle, equal to a full year’s salary, saying it reflected the fact that he would “continue to help on BBC business”, including two inquiries into the Savile affair.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, said he wanted an explanation of the payment. “A lot of people will be very surprised that somebody who was in the job for such a short period of time and then had to leave in these circumstances should be walking away with £450,000 of licence fee payers’ money,” he told the Press Association.

Lord Patten, the former chairman of the Conservative party, said he would not respond to calls for his resignation that had appeared in some Sunday newspapers.

“I think my job is to make sure that we now learn the lessons from the crisis,” he said. “If I don’t do that and don’t restore huge confidence and trust in the BBC then I’m sure people will tell me to take my cards and clear off,” he said. “But I will not take my marching orders from Mr Murdoch’s newspapers.”

The BBC said it was not expecting on Sunday to receive a report from Ken McQuarrie, the head of BBC Scotland, into how Newsnight came mistakenly to report that a senior Tory figure had abused boys in a Welsh children’s home in the 1970s and 1980s. But the report was still expected as a matter of urgency, the corporation said.

Social media sites identified the perpetrator as Lord McAlpine, a former Conservative treasurer, but on Thursday the main witness retracted his accusation, saying it was a case of mistaken identity.

The McQuarrie report could lead to more resignations at the broadcaster, senior BBC insiders said.

I will not take my marching orders from Mr Murdoch’s newspapers

- Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC trust

Mr Entwistle resigned on Saturday night after earlier telling the BBC’s Today programme that he did not know about the Newsnight investigation before it was transmitted, despite news stories and messages on Twitter 12 hours before transmission speculating about a revelation on the programme. He also said he had not seen the broadcast and did not hear about it until the following day.

Lord Patten said on Sunday that he had known about the planned broadcast the morning before it went on air.

The crisis over the report follows controversy over a decision by the same programme to drop an investigation into allegations that Savile sexually abused children.

Lord Patten underlined the vital importance of the scandal when he said the £3.5bn licence fee that funded the BBC was based on people trusting the organisation.

“If the BBC loses that [trust], it is all over,” he said. “One or two newspapers – the Murdoch papers – would love that, but I don’t think the great British public wants that. We have to restore that trust.”

He said he would start the search for a new director-general straight away. He hopes to appoint someone within weeks and said he may look for an external candidate.

There have been suggestions about splitting the role of chief executive and editor-in-chief, but this would mean rewriting the BBC’s royal charter, which is not scheduled to happen until 2017.

Lord Patten insisted that Mr Entwistle, who had only been in the job for eight weeks, had been the correct appointment because he had the right ideas for how to shake up the broadcaster.

“What is absolutely true is that when George said we had to get away from silos, infighting and become more self-critical ... he was absolutely spot on,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.

Conservative ministers said Mr Entwistle had been right to resign. Theresa May, the home secretary, said the BBC had “a job to do to restore public trust”.

Harriet Harman, deputy Labour leader, said Lord Patten should stay on because the BBC needed a period of stability.

 

WHO NEXT FOR THE TOP JOB?

 

Ed Richards
The chief executive of Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, has been in post for seven years and applied for the job when Mr Entwistle got it. Appointing him would obviate the need for an entirely renewed process. But can a regulator become an editor-in-chief? Under the BBC charter, not due for renewal for five years, the DG must also be editor-in-chief.

Caroline Thomson
Highly regarded as chief operating officer of BBC, she left when Mr Entwistle pipped her to the post to succeed Mark Thompson. A friend said on Sunday he doubted she would be interested in standing again. But having a woman in post during the past traumatic seven weeks would have made the BBC’s life a lot easier, especially on the Jimmy Savile-related sensitive issues of sexual harassment in the BBC’s past.

Tim Davie
The acting DG has no journalistic background: he is a marketing man who worked at Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo before joining BBC in 2005. A very able manager, he was appointed to run the commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, a few weeks ago and his business background might be an odd fit at a time when it is the BBC’s journalism that is crying out for reform.

Sophie Turner-Laing
Highly regarded head of television at British Sky Broadcasting, she has also worked at the BBC. Very able manager and popular with staff. Some BBC Trustees believe they should have appointed the first woman DG last time anyway.

Mark Scott
For six years, the director-general of ABC, the Australian public broadcaster. With an understated, intellectual approach, he would remind BBC insiders of Mark Thompson and George Entwistle, which could be either a good or bad thing. ABC’s budget is one-fifth of the BBC’s, but Mr Scott has experience of funding wars, political controversy and, in his former senior editorial role at Fairfax, the main rival to News Corp in Australia, at handling criticism from Rupert Murdoch’s press.

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