LONDON: The BBC struggled Monday to contain a spreading crisis over its reporting of a decades-old sexual abuse scandal as two senior executives withdrew temporarily from their jobs following the resignation of the corporation’s director-general, a move that encapsulated the worst setback to the public broadcaster’s status, prestige and self-confidence for years.
The BBC’s website said its director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, had “stepped aside,” the latest moves since a flagship current affairs program, Newsnight, wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician in accusations of sexual abuse at a children’s home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.
The BBC management said that neither Boaden nor Mitchell “had anything at all to do with the failed Newsnight investigation” of the politician, Alistair McAlpine.
But it “believes there is a lack of clarity in the lines of command and control in BBC News” because of an inquiry into a separate Newsnight debacle — the cancellation of a program a year ago into allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a longtime BBC television host who died last year at age 84.
The BBC said the two executives would step aside until the end of that investigation, which is being conducted by Nick Pollard, a former head of the rival Sky News. The BBC said its head of news gathering, Fran Unsworth, and Ceri Thomas, the editor of the current affairs radio program Today, would fill in for the executives who stepped aside.
But furor continued to build. On Monday, British lawmakers, politicians and newspapers focused on a decision by the BBC Trust to authorize a settlement payment to the former director-general, George Entwistle, equivalent to one year’s salary of around $750,000. The BBC justified the payment — double its contractual obligation of six months’ pay — by saying Entwistle would continue to help the various inquiries into the scandals.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s office challenged the payment as “hard to justify” but sent a signal opposing calls for the chairman of the supervisory BBC Trust, Chris Patten, to step down.
“The important thing is for Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties,” Cameron’s office said. “That has to be the priority at the moment.”
Tim Davie, 45, an executive with a background in marketing who is director of the BBC’s radio operations, will serve as the acting director-general.