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LONDON – The BBC’s flagship late night news program Newsnight continues to draw industry debate and questions about its editorial decision-making.
BBC director general George Entwistle on Saturday issued an apology to British politician Lord McAlpine after the public broadcaster’s news show had wrongly implicated him in a scandal about alleged abuse of children at care homes in Wales.
Entwistle ordered a report into what went wrong in the Newsnight investigation and suspended any investigative reports by the show until its procedures have been reviewed. Newsnight is already under investigation for its decision late last year to drop a report on abuse allegatiions against former BBC host Jimmy Savile.
Newsnight had in recent days reported claims against a leading 1980s Tory politician, but not named him. However, Twitter users deducted that the report was referring to McAlpine, leading the politician to issue a statement emphasizing his innocence.
Entwistle said: “It’s no kind of excuse or exoneration, but it’s important to say that the film itself did not make a named allegation.” But he focused on the journalistic missteps.
“This was a piece of journalism referred to senior figures within news, referred up to the level of the management board and had appropriate attention from the lawyers,” Entwistle said. “The question is, in spite of all that, why did it go wrong? Something definitely went wrong, something definitely and clearly and unambiguously went wrong.”
Newsnight‘s report had shown a victim accusing McAlpine of sex abuse. Entwistle said publicly it should not have been broadcast, but told BBC Radio 5 Live on Saturday he was not aware of the report until after it was broadcast. The BBC Trust, the governing body of the broadcaster, said it expected “appropriate action” to be taken.
The abuse victim, Steve Messham, apologized to McAlpine after confirming that he had not abused him. He said that in the 1990s he was shown a photograph by police of his alleged abuser, but was incorrectly told it was McAlpine. He was later shown another photo and realized it was not McAlpine, he argued.
Speaking to the BBC radio show, Entwistle said: “We should not have put out a film that was so fundamentally wrong. What happened here is so totally unacceptable. In my view, the film should not have gone out.”
Asked if he should have been aware of it as he is the editor-in-chief, he said “not every piece of journalism made inside the BBC is referred to the editor-in-chief.”
McAlpine had said the claims were “wholly false and seriously defamatory.” His lawyer said he would take legal action against those who later named and linked him to the false allegations.
Entwistle said he wanted answers to such questions as: “Did the journalists carry out basic checks, did they show Mr Messham the picture, did they put allegations to the individual, did they think of putting allegations to the individual, if they did not, why not, and did they have any corroboration of any kind?”
If necessary, disciplinary action would be taken, he said.
The BBC Trust in a Saturday statement described the Newsnight report and the McAlpine situation as “a deeply troubling episode.” It added: “The Trust notes the BBC executive’s apology and would like to offer its own apology also. The Trust has impressed upon the director general the need to get to the bottom of this as a matter of the utmost urgency and will expect appropriate action to be taken as quickly as possible.”
However, the director general said there was no suggestion the program would be shut down, saying such a move at this stage would be “disproportionate”.
He also said that the BBC was suffering a “bad crisis of trust,” but emphasized that it surrounded Newsnight, not other programs.
Added Entwistle: “I am doing the right things to try and put this stuff straight. I am accountable to the Trust in that endeavor. If they do not feel I am doing the right things, then obviously I will be bound by their judgment.”
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