BBC Chairman Says Network Needs Radical Overhaul

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LONDON -- The BBC's chairman said Sunday that the broadcasting organization was in a "ghastly mess" as a result of its bungled coverage of a decades-old sexual abuse scandal and in need of a fundamental shake-up.

"Does the BBC need a thorough structural overhaul? Of course it does," the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, said on "The Andrew Marr Show," the BBC's flagship Sunday morning talk show, after the resignation of the broadcaster's chief executive.

But although Mr. Patten has said that the BBC's handling of the scandal was marked by "unacceptably shoddy journalism," he pushed back on the Marr show against suggestions that the crisis could lead to a dismantling of the BBC as it now exists, with 23,000 employees, a $6 billion annual budget and a dominant role in British broadcasting.

Mr. Patten, 68, a former Conservative cabinet minister who gained a reputation for feisty independence when he was Britain's last colonial governor in Hong Kong, said critics of the BBC should not lose sight of its reputation at home and abroad for impartial, trustworthy journalism.

"The BBC is and has been hugely respected around the world," he said. "But we have to earn that. If the BBC loses that, then it is over."

Public confidence in the broadcaster has slumped further in opinion polls in the wake of its coverage of a scandal involving allegations of abuses by a senior politician at a children's home in Wales in the 1970s and '80s. But the British public would not support breaking up the BBC, Mr. Patten said, adding, "The BBC is one of the things that has come to define and reflect Britishness, and we shouldn't lose that."

Barely 12 hours earlier, Mr. Patten stood outside the BBC's new billion-dollar London headquarters with George Entwistle, the departing director general, as Mr. Entwistle announced his resignation after only eight weeks in the post to atone for his failings in dealing with what he called "the exceptional events of the past few weeks."

Mr. Entwistle's resignation was prompted by outrage over a Nov. 2 report on "Newsnight," a current affairs program, that wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician in the pedophile scandal. Responding to reports that the "Newsnight" segment was broadcast without some basic fact-checking that would have exculpated the 70-year-old, retired politician it implicated, Alistair McAlpine, Mr. Entwistle said it reflected "unacceptable journalistic standards" and never should have been broadcast.

That episode, which Mr. McAlpine's lawyers have said will be the subject of a defamation lawsuit, compounded the problems facing the network since revelations last month about a longtime BBC television host, Jimmy Savile, who died at 84 in 2011. Mr. Savile was suspected of having sexually abused as many as 300 young people over decades, in the BBC's studios and in children's homes and hospitals where he gained ready access as a campaigner for children's charities.

The BBC has been accused of covering up the Savile matter by canceling a "Newsnight" report on the accusations against him last December and going ahead with several Christmas specials that paid tribute to Mr. Savile.

The producer of "Newsnight" told his staff that the Savile investigation was not adequately substantiated by their reporting, but at least one "Newsnight" staff member noted that the producer said that he had come under pressure on the issue from BBC managers. At that time, Mr. Entwistle was in charge of all the BBC's television productions and was seeking to succeed Mark Thompson, who stepped down in September after eight years as director general. Mr. Entwistle has said that he was not informed beforehand of the nature of the "Newsnight" investigation or the reasons for its cancellation.

On Monday, Mr. Thompson will begin his new post as president and chief executive of The New York Times. He has said he knew nothing beforehand about the "Newsnight" investigation of Mr. Savile or the decision to scrap it -- not even that it involved allegations of pedophilia -- and that he had never met Mr. Savile. But Mr. Thompson has said that he is willing to answer any questions put to him by a parliamentary inquiry or a raft of other investigations now under way.

Mr. Patten said Sunday that he expected a new director to be appointed within weeks. On Saturday, he announced that Tim Davie, 45, the director of the BBC's audio and music unit, would serve as the acting director general.

But British commentators say that finding a new chief executive is only part of the wider crisis confronting the BBC in the wake of the departure of Mr. Entwistle, 50. They are also asking whether Britain needs such a huge public-service broadcaster in an age of expanding media choices, and whether the BBC should retain the advantages granted to it under its royal charter and continue to be financed by the mandatory $230-a-year license fee for owners of television sets.

Effectively, these questions are already being asked as part of a long-running governmental review of the BBC's role that was under way before the current crisis. The BBC's harshest detractors have pressed for a radical downscaling of the broadcaster, and for its return to a narrower range of public-service programing, leaving much that it now does in entertainment, sports, reality TV and other fields to its commercial competitors.

More immediately, the BBC has to deal with a rebellious mood in its own ranks. Over the past 48 hours many of the BBC's top journalists and presenters have unleashed angry outbursts against the broadcaster's management, mainly directed at Mr. Entwistle and Mr. Thompson for what the employees have called a pattern of failed leadership. 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.

It was a critique Mr. Patten endorsed in his remarks on the Marr show, saying at one point that "there are more senior leaders in the BBC than in the Chinese Communist Party." Jonathan Dimbleby, a well-known presenter, said on the same show that because of the layers of bureaucracy between Mr. Entwistle and the "Newsnight" producers, "George was at the receiving end of nothing, when he should have known everything."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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