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BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten Defends Embattled Broadcaster

Chris Patten - H 2012

The former MP says that despite making "awful mistakes," the broadcaster can recapture the public's trust.

LONDON --  BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten said the public broadcaster, despite suffering "awful mistakes" and "occasional failings" is still the greatest public service broadcaster and "arguably the greatest broadcaster in the world."

Patten, giving a speech at the annual Voice of the Listener and Viewer Annual fall confab, defended the BBC as it continues to be rocked by the ongoing fallout from the former Top of the Pops host Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal and various reporting missteps and controversies affecting flagship late evening show Newsnight.

His speech comes as media observers, industry experts and commentators across the political spectrum await the findings of two internal probes at the BBC.

STORY: Jimmy Savile's Multimillion Dollar Estate Frozen in Sex Abuse Scandal

The first is into the kind of work environment the BBC provides and possible factors that allowed Savile's behavior, the other into a decision by flagship news show Newsnight to drop a planned report on the abuse allegations.

"Every time I've made a speech in the past two months, I've ended up talking about the grisly business of Jimmy Savile, Newsnight and the crisis that has afflicted the BBC," Patten told the conference.

"And obviously I want to talk some more about that today, if only to reflect on what lessons we can draw from it, now that we have new leadership on its way in the form of [incoming director general] Tony Hall."

STORY: 'New York Times' CEO Mark Thompson to Give Evidence at BBC Enquiry

Hall takes up the role in March 2013 following the shocking resignation of George Entwistle late on Saturday, Nov. 10, after just 54 days in the top job at the U.K. public broadcaster amid a crisis following allegations of sexual abuse against the late former BBC host Savile and a mistaken news report that forced the BBC to issue a retraction.

"The biggest crises always seem to come out of a clear blue sky," Patten said, noting that recent events followed a summer that had seen the broadcaster's London 2012 Olympics coverage hailed far and wide for technological and editorial achievement.

Patten said it "seemed like the right time for a new DG to look at some of the management problems which, beneath the surface, were still bedeviling one of our greatest institutions."

The BBC Trust chairman said in his speech Monday he was "struck on my arrival [in 2008] as chairman by the number of people inside and outside the BBC who told me it was successful despite its management culture, not because of it."

His wide-ranging speech took in plans to change the management but he also took the opportunity to reflect that while public trust in the broadcaster had been damaged, it was not damaged "fatally or beyond repair."

Said Patten: "The next important moment will come when Nick Pollard completes his Inquiry, which is looking at the BBC's management of the Newsnight  investigation into Jimmy Savile. Once we get the Pollard report, it will, I hope, be much clearer to the Trust what went wrong and how."

He said that would mean BBC management will have to "roll their sleeves up" and get on with putting things right.

Patten also took the opportunity to comment on media calls for the governance of the public broadcaster -- a situation that sees the BBC Trust police the BBC and its management -- to be changed.

"I suppose it's inevitable that when something goes wrong, people look to the top of the organization and to questions about what structure would or should work best," said Patten.

"As I've said, I think the failings in the past year have tended to be more down to individual judgments, behaviors and the management culture around them."

He said he is not sure "a different regulatory or supervisory structure would have made a difference."