BBC in ‘ghastly mess’ after resignations, as its former leader takes reins at NYT

Still reeling from the fallout of a sex abuse story it spiked, the British Broadcasting Corporation is now in even more peril because of another sex abuse story that never should have been broadcast. Director General George Entwistle resigned Saturday over a report that falsely accused a former British politician, Lord McAlpine, of child sex abuse.

Acting BBC Director General Tim Davie told staff in an email, “I am determined to give the BBC the clarity and leadership it deserves in the next few weeks.”

• BBC director of news Helen Boaden and deputy director of news Steve Mitchell have temporarily “stepped aside” — not resigned — though neither “had anything at all to do with the failed ‘Newnight’ investigation into Lord McAlpine,” the BBC said. Iain Overton was editor of the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which produced the botched McAlpine report with the BBC; he resigned Monday.

• Boaden and Mitchell were already sidelined from the usual BBC editorial vetting process because of unresolved questions about their role in a “Newsnight” investigation of former BBC star Jimmy Savile that the BBC killed. “Newsnight” editor Peter Rippon, who made that call, has already “stepped aside” — not resigned. The BBC said Rippon’s blog post explaining his decision was “inaccurate or incomplete in some respects.”

Entwistle announced his resignation in central London, Saturday Nov. 10, 2012. (Max Nash/AP)

• How did the editorial process at the British beacon of broadcasting allow two miserable failures? Emily Bell traces the problem to a 2003 report by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan that lead to its source, Dr. David Kelly, being outed and grilled by Parliament. He later killed himself. A subsequent inquiry, Bell writes:

resulted in the resignation of BBC director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies, a major reshuffle in its news department, and a cloud that has shadowed its journalism since. Mark Thompson was the man brought in to steady the ship, and part of his reshuffle of the BBC’s news and current affairs division saw the rise of a more risk-averse approach.

• The BBC also instituted a referral process that was supposed to catch bad journalism. John Ware writes it’s “not obvious” how that process collapsed during the McAlpine story, but takes a guess:

The Jimmy Savile crisis has caused such paralysis at the top of the BBC that the people who normally would have been consulted, were, I am told, not directly involved on this occasion. These include the BBC’s deputy director of news, Steve Mitchell; the director, Helen Boaden, herself; and David Jordan, director of editorial policy and standards. Because they are in the line of fire, accused of being slow to react over Savile, a shadow management team were handling the ‘Newsnight’ programme.

• In the New York Times, John F. Burns is less charitable to the BBC: “A persistent complaint has been that reforms initiated in the 1990s have created a vast hierarchy of overpaid managers who were insulated from programming decisions.” Chris Patten, who directs the BBC’s trust, told BBC journalist Andrew Marr (who has shown some facility at creating his own British media scandals — 1, 2) there was a “ghastly mess” at the BBC. Here’s a clip of Patten’s appearance on Marr’s show Sunday.

• Thompson, the BBC’s former director general, begins his new job as CEO of the New York Times Company Monday. An ITV crew interviewed him as he entered the building. “I’m very saddened by recent events at the BBC,” he said. “I’ve got no doubt it will once again regain the public’s trust, both in the U.K. and around the world.” Asked whether it would affect his new gig, Thompson said, “No I believe that it will not in any way affect my job which I’m starting right now as chief executive of the New York Times Company” and walked inside.

• Joe Hagan writes that because of the cloud under which he’s beginning the job, Thompson “does not arrive with the full confidence of the Times’ journalists.” Jeff Bercovici asks whether the Times is “locked into sticking with him, come what may,” drawing parallels between Arthur Sulzberger’s support for Thompson and Sulzberger’s support for Howell Raines and Judy Miller.

In both instances, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was quick to demonstrate his support for embattled journalists — executive editor Howell Raines and Miller — only to withdraw that support after a steady drip-drip of damning revelations provoked unrest in the newsroom. Both Raines and Miller ultimately resigned, leaving a paper weakened, at least temporarily, by the internal struggles they instigated.

• Sulzberger hasn’t pushed back against the paper’s reporting on Thompson, Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson tells Paul Farhi.

But owning a newspaper has its privileges. Abramson said she showed Sulzberger a lengthy piece by [Times reporter Matthew] Purdy about Thompson before it was published last week. The story found no smoking gun but concluded that Thompson “repeatedly missed opportunities to pursue a fuller picture of the ‘Newsnight’ reporting, the fate of the program and, perhaps, of Mr. Savile.”

“Arthur and I have a close relationship and a policy of not surprising each other,” Abramson said. “So I informed him about Matt Purdy’s article before publication, as I do with any potentially sensitive article.”

• Ken Doctor lists many reasons he believes Thompson shouldn’t take the job. Among them: The Savile/”Newsnight” mess draws an uncomfortable parallel between Thompson and James Murdoch.

What is Thompson’s main defense?: There may have been reports or messages of one kind or another noting the brewing scandal, but I was too busy to read everything. That sounds too much like James Murdoch’s Hackgate defense when confronted with pointed emails alerting him to the depth of the crisis. Again, it doesn’t matter whether the issues of scandal themselves can be equated or whether the willfulness of deniability are of the same scale. What matters is that it’s easy to paint Thompson with the same brush.

• Thompson recently gave a lecture at Oxford University, where he is a visiting professor. The title? “The Cloud of Unknowing.”

Earlier: New York Times to welcome new CEO Monday | NYT: Mark Thompson ‘missed opportunities’ to address BBC scandal | Report: Mark Thompson’s office was contacted twice about BBC killing news program | Incoming New York Times CEO faces questions about future as U.K. scandal spreads

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  • Anonymous

    I think this is the beginning of the opening of a can of worms- The bias of the BBC on many subjects has for so long been denied and ignored- Saville is just the beginning- Lets now ask for the transparency that the BBC demand of our politicians. Many reports are held in secret files. Why? If they are not detrimental to the National Security then they should be made available under the “Freedom of Information” act. However the BeeB and indeed the Law Lords seem to deem them privileged- My pet report is the Malcom Balen report on whether the BBC `s reporting in the M.E is bias- They have spent 10`s of thousands of pounds of the licence payers money just not to produce it. Again why? This all points to an undemocratic institution withholding material which is of interest to its fee paying public.

  • http://www.facebook.com/allandalemaurer Allan Dale Maurer

    I listen to the BBC World News nightly on my Internet radio and in the last year they reported details incorrectly when Ali’s rival Joe Frazier died, and other news stories. I don’t know who’s editing what there, but their fact-checking, if there is any, isn’t very good.

  • https://twitter.com/misterjayem MrJM

    BBC: Omnishambles or Cock-up?

    – MrJM