GEORGE Entwistle last night unexpectedly resigned as director-general of the BBC following the row over the Newsnight report that wrongly implicated a Conservative peer in a child abuse scandal.
Entwistle took the dramatic step as the Corporation struggled to deal with the most serious scandal to have dogged the public sector broadcaster in its 90-year history.
In a statement issued last night, Entwistle acknowledged that “unacceptable journalistic standards” had been displayed during the debacle, and he said the “honourable” thing to do was to stand down.
Flanked by BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, after a day of dramatic developments, Entwistle quit just 130 days after he was appointed to the top job. His resignation gives him the unenviable record of having the shortest tenure of any BBC director-general. He will be replaced for the time being by Tim Davie, chief executive of BBC Worldwide. Entwistle’s decision had followed a disastrous 24 hours in which he had struggled to defend his handling of the Newsnight programme which led to Lord McAlpine, an influential Tory figure from the Thatcher era, being falsely identified as a paedophile. Although earlier he insisted he would not quit, he emerged outside Broadcasting House in London to issue a short resignation statement.
Entwistle said: “In light of the fact that the director-general is also the editor-in-chief responsible for all content and in light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday, 2 November, I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of director-general.
“When appointed to the role with 23 years experience as a producer and leader with the BBC, I was confident the Trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post and the right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead.
“However the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader. To have been the director-general of the BBC, even for a short period and in the most challenging circumstances, has been a great honour.”
In his parting words Entwistle paid tribute to BBC staff at the end of a hugely damaging day for the corporation.
Entwistle said: “While there was understandable public concern over a number of issues well covered in the media, which I am confident will be addressed by the review process, we must not lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people with the greatest talent and highest integrity, who will continue to make it the finest broadcaster in the world. “
Earlier in the day, Entwistle had admitted under intense questioning from John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Newsnight item should never have been shown.
Interviewed by one of his own journalists, Entwistle gave an unconvincing performance that failed to give the impression that he had a grip on the scandal.
Ministers and MPs had demanded an explanation as to why the latest crisis to hit the BBC had erupted so soon after the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal.
The failure of Newsnight to broadcast an investigation that it had undertaken into the Savile’s serial paedophilia had led to a welter of criticism being thrown at the top of the BBC.
Serious questions were asked about Entwistle’s leadership when it emerged that the investigation into allegations that Savile serially abused young women had been shelved while the BBC was planning a Christmas tribute to the late disc-jockey.
The BBC’s judgment once again came in for severe criticism when Newsnight broadcast a programme in which a child abuse victim, Steve Messham ,claimed that he had been abused by a senior Tory. Although Newsnight did not name him, the programme triggered a flurry of internet speculation that led to McAlpine taking the decision to defend himself. Interviewed by Humphrys, Entwistle admitted that he did not know that Newsnight intended to wrongly implicate a senior Tory until after the programme was broadcast.
He was also unaware of a tweet sent out by the programme makers 12 hours before the programme was aired, which suggested that Newsnight was going to name the senior Conservative.
“I found out about this film after it had gone out,” Entwistle told Humphrys. “In the light of what has happened here I wish this was referred to me, but it wasn’t. I found out about the film the following day.”
The disclosure that he had not known about the Newsnight report was greeted with disbelief by MPs yesterday. The chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, John Whittingdale, said that he believed the Entwistle had no choice but to go.
“It left the impression that the management of the BBC had lost their grip of the organisation and I think tonight’s decision is undoubtedly the right one,” he said.
“I think that what has happened in the last few days has immensely weakened his authority and credibility. It would have been very difficult for him to continue in those circumstances.”
Speaking after Entwistle made his statement last night, Patten said: “George has very honourably offered us his resignation because of the unacceptable mistakes and the unacceptable shoddy journalism, which has caused so much controversy. He has behaved as editor with huge honour and courage and would that the rest of the world always behaved the same.”
Last night, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said: “It is regrettable, but the right decision. It is vital that credibility and public trust in this important national institution is restored.”
George Entwistle: Statement in full
“In the light of the fact that the Director-General is also the Editor-in-Chief and ultimately responsible for all content; and in the light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2nd November; I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of Director-General.
When appointed to the role, with 23 years’ experience as a producer and leader at the BBC, I was confident the Trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post, and the right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead. However, the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader.
To have been the Director-General of the BBC even for a short period, and in the most challenging of circumstances, has been a great honour.
While there is understandable public concern over a number of issues well covered in the media - which I’m confident will be addressed by the Review process - we must not lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people of the greatest talent and the highest integrity. That’s what will continue to make it the finest broadcaster in the world.”
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