LONDON -- After weeks of turmoil over the BBC's coverage of a spreading pedophile scandal, the broadcaster's director general, George Entwistle, resigned Saturday night, bowing to a wave of condemnation including from a BBC television anchor, who depicted him as having lost control of "a rudderless ship heading towards the rocks."
Mr. Entwistle's sudden departure as the BBC's chief executive was prompted by outrage over a report on "Newsnight," one of the network's flagship current affairs programs, that wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician in a pedophile scandal involving a children's home in Wales.
Mr. Entwistle said the report, broadcast on Nov. 2, reflected "unacceptable journalistic standards" and never should have been broadcast.
That broadcast has only compounded the problems facing the network since the revelation last month that a longtime BBC television host, Jimmy Savile, was suspected of having sexually abused perhaps hundreds of young people over the course of decades, sometimes on the BBC premises. The network has been accused of covering up the accusations by canceling a Newsnight report on the Savile case last year, when Mr. Entwistle was a senior executive at the network.
Mr. Entwistle was barely two months into the director's job, heading one of the world's largest media organizations. His departure followed the suspension in the past month of a number of senior producers as the BBC has struggled to find a path through what many commentators have described as its greatest crisis in decades.
A 50-year-old career broadcaster who rose through the ranks of BBC producers, Mr. Entwistle made his announcement on the steps of the BBC's new billion-dollar headquarters in central London. With the BBC's chairman, Chris Patten, standing gloomily beside him, Mr. Entwistle said he had decided that resigning was "the honorable thing to do."
"The wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader," he said.
He added that the intense public scrutiny of the BBC that has resulted from the pedophile scandal should not lead people "to lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people of the greatest talent and the highest integrity."
Mr. Patten, the BBC chairman, said that Tim Davie, 45, the BBC's director of audio and music, would become the acting director general.
Mr. Patten, whose own position may now be imperiled by the wave of demands for the BBC to be brought to account over the scandal, did not attempt to disguise the gravity of the situation, alluding to the "unacceptable mistakes, the unacceptably shoddy journalism" that had culminated in the Nov. 2 "Newsnight" program.
That program focused on allegations of abuses by a senior politician in the 1970s and 1980s at a children's home in north Wales. The "Newsnight" broadcast did not identify the politician but said that his name was being widely circulated on the Internet.
On Thursday, The Guardian said that the politician was Alistair McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer, and that he was the victim of mistaken identity.
Mr. McAlpine, now 70 and in poor health, said Friday that the allegations against him were "wholly false and defamatory" and warned that he planned to sue.
That was followed by a statement by the former resident of the children's home who had made the abuse allegation, Steve Messham, who said he had now seen a photograph of Mr. McAlpine and was sure that he was not the man who had abused him.
In an extensive apology Friday night, "Newsnight" acknowledged that it had not shown a photograph of Mr. McAlpine to Mr. Messham before interviewing him for the program and that its investigators had not contacted Mr. McAlpine to give him an opportunity to respond to the allegations.
Among those facing questions about their roles in the decision not to broadcast a news segment on Savile was the former director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, the incoming president and chief executive of The New York Times Co., who has said he was not involved in the decision.
The revelation that Savile, was most likely a pedophile with perhaps hundreds of victims has spurred a broad criminal inquiry involving numerous police departments; caused institutions, including schools, hospitals and the BBC, to investigate their ties to Savile; forced Prime Minister David Cameron to order two new inquiries into the handling of a sexual abuse scandal in Wales several years ago; encouraged hundreds of people to report their own experiences to abuse hot lines; and elicited profound feelings of discomfort and guilt among those who knew, hired, admired, watched, welcomed, solicited charity from or cheerfully put young people in the path of Savile.
They also have highlighted how much Britain's attitude toward sexual abuse has changed since Savile's heyday, in the 1970s and '80s.
"There was a massive cultural difference then," said Donald Findlater, director of Stop It Now, which works to prevent child sexual abuse. "We hadn't really properly discovered child abuse yet."
But, bolstered by increasingly strict legislation, attitudes have swung drastically in the other direction -- to a fault, some believe. Police background checks are now required of anyone working with children, including parents who volunteer in schools. Teachers are advised not to be alone with students and to be wary of touching them.Some playgrounds refuse admission to adults without children. Some schools forbid parents to photograph sports events or plays, lest the pictures end up in the wrong place.