The head of the BBC has resigned, just two months into the job, after the state-funded British broadcaster put out a programme denounced by its own chairman as shoddy journalism.
In a brief statement outside BBC headquarters in London on Saturday, George Entwistle, a 23-year BBC veteran, said he decided to do the “honourable thing” and step down as director general after just eight weeks in the job.
The BBC, reeling from revelations that one of its former stars was a paedophile, brought further problems on its head when Newsnight, a flagship news programme, aired a mistaken allegation that a former senior politician sexually abused children.
The BBC had already issued a full apology on Friday, but on Saturday Entwistle had to admit under questioning from his own journalists that he had not known in advance about the Newsnight report, just weeks after being accused of being too hands-off over the previous scandal on the same programme.
“The wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader,” he said.
It was a rapid about-face for Entwistle, who earlier on Saturday had insisted he had no plans to resign despite growing questions about his leadership and the BBC’s integrity in the wake of the scandals.
Accepting Entwistle’s resignation, Lord Patten, BBC Trust chairman, said: “This is undoubtedly one of the saddest evenings of my public life.
“At the heart of the BBC is its role as a trusted global news organisation.
“As the editor-in-chief of that organisation, George has very honourably offered us his resignation because of the unacceptable mistakes – the unacceptable shoddy journalism – which has caused us so much controversy.”
Maria Miller, UK culture minister, welcomed Entwistle’s decision to quit. “It is a regrettable but the right decision,” she said.
“It is vital that credibility and public trust in this important national institution is restored.”
Enwistle had said that in hindsight he wished the matter had been referred to him. That claim drew incredulity from politicians and media watchers who wondered how he could have allowed a second botched handling of a prominent child sex-abuse story only weeks after the Savile scandal.
The BBC and its senior officials have been under huge pressure since a rival broadcaster carried charges last month that the late Jimmy Savile, one of the most recognisable personalities on British television in the 1970s and ’80s, was a prolific sex offender.
Suggestions have surfaced of a paedophile ring inside the broadcaster at the time and a BBC cover-up.
To complicate matters for Entwistle, Newsnight pulled a planned expose of Savile shortly after his death last year, and the BBC went ahead with tribute shows.
Having been widely criticised for not broadcasting that expose, which led to its editor stepping aside, Newsnight is now being criticised for its November 2 report on sexual abuse at children’s care homes in North Wales during the 1970s.
Steve Messham, a witness, told Newsnight that a senior Conservative had raped him when he was a child in one of the homes.
Newsnight did not identify the politician, but the name of Alistair McAlpine, Conservative Party treasurer from 1975 to 1990 during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, quickly appeared on the internet and social media sites.
On Friday, McAlpine went public to rigorously deny the allegations and threaten legal action.
Hours later, Messham said he had misidentified McAlpine to Newsnight.
The programme admitted it had not approached McAlpine for a comment, or shown Messham a picture of McAlpine, before airing the report.
Berated for what he agreed was a slow response to the Savile disclosures, Entwistle demanded a report on the incident by Sunday and suspended all Newsnight investigations.
The erroneous Newsnight report had been cleared by senior managers and lawyers, and commentators queried why Entwistle had been kept in the dark in the wake of the furore over Savile.
Lawyers for McAlpine have said they will pursue legal action against “all media who have defamed Lord McAlpine’s reputation and published defamatory statements”.
McAlpine, who decribed the claims as “wholly false and seriously defamatory”, said he was forced to publicly deny them after he was named directly on the internet and “by innuendo” in the print and broadcast media.