Turmoil Spreads at BBC as Two More Executives Step Aside

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LONDON -- The BBC struggled on 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 in the wake of 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 Web site 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 while neither Ms. Boaden nor Mr. Mitchell "had anything at all to do with the failed 'Newsnight' investigation" of the politician, Alistair McAlpine, 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 then 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 several fronts. 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 Mr. 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, Lord Chris Patten, to step down. "The important thing is for Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties," Mr. 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, is to serve as the acting director general. In a videotaped interview posted by the BBC, Mr. Davie also said he would take a short period to deliberate.

"I've just got into the job," he said. "I'm going to take a bit of time to look through the recommendations, and then we'll take the disciplinary process through and be fair to those individuals." He added: "The BBC has lost a director-general in this process. That in itself is very significant and he has taken responsibility."

Accounts published in Britain's newspapers, citing current and former BBC staff members, said the "Newsnight" team had worked with an independent group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at the City University in London, in preparing the Nov. 2 report that wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine.

The privately financed bureau was founded in 2009 to investigate controversial issues and, in its own words, to provide a "gold standard" for reporting. It has used experienced journalists and students at the university's journalism school, often in conjunction with mainstream media organizations like the BBC that have paid the bureau for its work.

In a statement, the bureau's board of trustees said that it was "appalled by what appears to be a breach" of standards and that "remedial action will be taken against those responsible."

The bureau's work for the report was led by a former BBC reporter, Angus Stickler, who was seconded to "Newsnight" and worked jointly under a BBC producer and the bureau's own managing editor, Iain Overton, a former BBC producer. Mr. Overton resigned on Monday.

Several of those involved in the preparation of the "Newsnight" report have been quoted in British papers as saying that errors included not calling Lord McAlpine for a response and not showing a former child-home resident interviewed for the report, Steve Messham, a photograph of Lord McAlpine. Mr. Messham has apologized to Lord McAlpine, tracing the confusion to the police identification of a photograph of a man he identified as his abuser in the early 1990s.

The latest debacle has compounded the problems facing the network since accusations exploded last month against Mr. Savile, who is suspected of having sexually accosted or abused as many as 300 young people. Critics have accused the BBC of covering up the abuse by canceling a "Newsnight" report on the accusations against him last December. Mr. Entwistle has said that he was not informed beforehand of the nature of the "Newsnight" investigation or the reasons for its cancellation.

At that time, Mr. Entwistle was in charge of all the BBC's television productions and was seeking to succeed Mark Thompson as director general.

Mr. Thompson stepped down in September after accepting an offer to become president and chief executive of The New York Times Company, a post he took up on Monday. He has said that he knew nothing beforehand about the "Newsnight" investigation of Mr. Savile or the decision to scrap it, but that he is willing to answer any questions from investigators.

In a message to the staff of The Times on Monday, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and board chairman, welcomed Mr. Thompson without alluding to the crisis at the BBC. "Mark will lead us as we continue our digital transformation, bolster our international growth, drive our productivity and introduce new technologies that will help us become better storytellers and enrich the experience for our readers and viewers," the message said. "That is what he did as Director-General of the BBC. His experience will be of great value to our company as we continue our pursuit of creating the highest quality journalism and the business results to support it."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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