BBC: ‘Unacceptable’ failings mark flawed BBC report

Posted at 8:30 PM, Nov 12, 2012
and last updated 2012-11-12 22:30:32-05

LONDON (CNN) — An investigation into a BBC “Newsnight” program that proved flawed has concluded that its production was marked by a series of “unacceptable” failures, the BBC said Monday.

It vowed to move quickly to strengthen the editorial process and restore public trust in the venerable British broadcasting organization.

The “Newsnight” program, which aired on November 2, focused on allegations of child abuse from the 1970s and 1980s at children’s homes in Wales. It said that two victims had alleged that a Conservative, Thatcher-era politician — whom it did not identify by name — had been among their abusers.

The report was prepared in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which had worked in the past with the BBC and other media outlets on investigative stories.

After Internet speculation identified Lord McAlpine, a senior political figure of the 1980s, as the abuser, the victim admitted he had identified the wrong man.

The BBC aired an apology the day after the program was broadcast, but it did little to contain the fallout from the false accusation.

The investigation into the program was carried out by BBC Scotland Director, Ken MacQuarrie, who noted that the complex story had moved from commission to transmission in six days, an unusually short period for the BBC.

In addition, the program’s editorial management structure “had been seriously weakened since the editor stood aside and one of the deputy editors left the organization,” it said.

At the time, the BBC had established a separate chain of command for all stories related to Jimmy Savile, its late TV presenter who has been accused of sex abuse.

But it was not clear whether the Wales story was regarded as Savile-related, McAlpine’s report said. “As a consequence there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility for the Newsnight report, particularly in the days leading up to the day of transmission,” it said.

In addition, some “basic journalistic checks were not completed” during the editorial process, it continued. “Specifically, identification was not confirmed by photograph with the first victim. The second victim could not be traced in order to provide up to date corroboration … No right of reply was offered to the unnamed individual at the center of the allegation.”

The “key parties” did not agree on who was responsible for the final editorial approval for the story, he added.

In a statement, the BBC executive board announced actions it said were intended to restore public trust in the organization’s journalism:

— the re-establishment of a single management structure for all stories, including those about Savile;

— the appointment of Karen O’Connor, who has two decades of television journalism experience, to serve as acting editor of “Newsnight”;

— the beginning of a disciplinary process, “where appropriate”;

— the hiring of a non-executive director of the BBC who has “a proven track record of overseeing journalism.”

“The full report will be used to inform disciplinary proceedings, which will begin immediately,” the statement said.

“The failings identified by Mr. MacQuarrie are unacceptable, and the Executive Board is taking clear and decisive action,” it said.

The announcements followed the weekend resignation of George Entwistle as director general.

On Monday, the media organization announced that two other BBC executives had “stepped aside” pending a review into the network’s handling of Savile case.

News Director Helen Boaden and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, were asked to “surrender all their responsibilities” pending the outcome of the review, the BBC said in a statement.

“The BBC wants to make it absolutely clear that neither Helen Boaden nor Stephen Mitchell had anything to do with the failed Newsnight investigation into Lord McAlpine,” the statement said.

“Whilst recognizing this, the BBC believes there is a lack of clarity in the lines of command and control in BBC News as a result of some of those caught up in the … review being unable to exercise their normal authority.”

The BBC said it expected the two to return to their positions after the review.

In September, the scandal over the BBC’s handling of sex-abuse allegations against Savile erupted amid revelations that “Newsnight” pulled a report into allegations against him prior to a planned tribute by the BBC to the late TV presenter.

Entwistle and others were called in front of lawmakers to answer for the scandal surrounding Savile, who authorities say was suspected of having sexually abused young women and girls, sometimes on BBC premises.

“Consideration is now being given to the extent to which individuals should be asked to account further for their actions and, if appropriate, disciplinary action will be taken,” the BBC said.

Boaden was director of BBC News when the decision was made to pull the Savile report, the BBC reported.

“Ms. Boaden has overall editorial and managerial responsibility for UK-wide and global news and current affairs on radio, television and online,” the BBC said.

The moves came as the former director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, started his first day of work Monday as chief executive of The New York Times.

“Look, like many people, I’m very saddened by recent events at the BBC, but I believe the BBC is the world’s greatest broadcaster and I’ve got no doubt it will once again regain the public’s trust both in the UK and around the world,” he told CNN as he entered the newspaper’s lobby in Midtown Manhattan. “It is a very important institution, and I believe it is full of people with real integrity and talent, and I have no doubt it will get back on its feet really soon.”

Referring to the upheaval, Thompson predicted that “it will not in any way affect my job, which I’m starting right now.”

CNN’s Richard Allen Greene and Alexander Felton contributed to this report.

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