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News chief steps aside as BBC crisis deepens

posted 12 Nov 2012, 10:15 by Mpelembe   [ updated 12 Nov 2012, 10:15 ]

The head of news and the deputy at the BBC step aside as the broadcaster is rocked by one of its worst crises in its 90-year history.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UK (NOVEMBER 12, 2012) (REUTERS) -  The head of news at the British Broadcasting Corporation stepped aside on Monday (November 12) after a programme falsely accusing a former senior politician of child abuse sparked one of the worst crises in the publicly-funded broadcaster's 90-year history.

The BBC has been rocked by two news programmes, one that falsely accused the politician which was broadcast last week, and another which alleged child sex abuse by a former star presenter, the late Jimmy Savile, but which was not aired.

Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, and her deputy Stephen Mitchell, stepped aside pending a review of why editors spiked the report last year on Savile, who has been accused of abusing children on BBC premises.

Acting Director General Tim Davie, on his second day in the job, announced a new "simple line of command" in the news department, in a bid to rebuild confidence.

"It is a little early for me, straight in the job, to confirm or deny whether we are going to have disciplinary action. What I've done as a first action, is I've looked at these failings through the last few weeks, is to prioritise one thing: is to get a really clear structure in our news organisation. And today I have announced that we are establishing one very simple line of command in news. That is my first task as an Acting Director General coming in, so that I can deliver journalism that's trusted," Davie said.

Davie stepped in after the resignation of George Entwistle on Saturday (November 10), just two months into the job, to take responsibility for the report which wrongly said an unidentified Conservative figure from the era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had raped boys in social care.

But the man, later identified on the Internet as Lord Alistair McAlpine, vehemently denied the allegation and his lawyer threatened legal action against Newsnight, the BBC's flagship current affairs show which broadcast the allegations.

The BBC apologised for the report, which it said was shoddy journalism and wrong after the abuse victim who was the source of the allegation said it was a case of mistaken identity.

Entwistle's exit failed to cool the crisis: the government said it was hard to justify his payoff of a year's salary of 450,000 pounds ($715,900) from an organisation funded by a 145.50 pound annual levy on households with a television.

"I think it is very difficult to justify the decision that has been taken. The BBC have got to really justify to the license fee payer value for money and this is going to have to happen," British culture secretary, Maria Miller, said.

Chairman of the BBC Trust Chris Patten, who appointed and then accepted Entwistle's resignation, said the settlement was justified.

The crisis raises questions about ethics, competence and management at the BBC.

Some BBC staff have cast the 22,000-strong Corporation as a bureaucratic behemoth where journalistic talent is throttled by incompetent managers, and opponents - and even some allies - questioned whether it could survive in its current form.

Stewart Purvis, a professor of TV Journalism at London's City University and a former Editor-In-Chief at ITN, said Patten even complained of bureaucracy at the BBC.

"Well the chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten used to be the governor of Hong Kong and he said that there are more managers at the BBC than there are in the Chinese Communist Party, and that's a sort of odd thing to say about your own organisation. So he clearly wants something to be done. He clearly was discussing with George Entwistle, before he resigned, what he should do about it. In fact, standing here as I was on Saturday night, he said he was going to implement some kind of restructuring plan that George Entwistle signed off before he left," Purvis said.

On the streets outside the broadcasters' London headquarters, commuters had mixed views - some say their trust has been shaken others say it is all a big fuss over nothing.

"Well we used to always rely on the BBC for being factual. If you wanted to watch a news programme you automatically switched to the BBC because you knew they would get it right. But now you wonder whether they are biased to one way or the other and I don't really trust them as much as I used to," viewer, Stephen Jacob, said.

"I think it is a lot of fuss about nothing and I think George Entwistle has been really badly treated, and I think we should value the BBC it's a fantastic institution," viewer, Janet Davis, said.

"It needs to be sorted out but I wouldn't say that my confidence in it has been rocked, hugely," viewer, Tim Marshall, said.

Patten on Sunday warned that the world's biggest broadcaster is doomed unless it reforms.

BBC staff say the poor handling of the abuse allegations against Savile, a DJ turned television star who is suspected of sexually abusing dozens of children, and a flawedNewsnight report which management later had to admit was wrong showed the broadcaster has veered far from its roots.