THE BBC last night apologised “unreservedly” for a Newsnight report that falsely implicated former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine in allegations of sex abuse at children’s homes in Wales.
Director-general George Entwistle took the extraordinary step of ordering an immediate halt to all Newsnight investigations to “assess editorial robustness and supervision”, as the BBC faced one of the greatest crises in its history.
A statement was issued by the corporation hours after a former children’s home resident offered his own “sincere and humble apologies” for making false allegations against Lord McAlpine.
Steve Messham’s admission came after the peer broke cover to vehemently deny claims that had been circulating on the internet since the victim appeared on Newsnight last Friday.
Lord McAlpine, a member of the Scottish engineering dynasty, issued a lengthy statement addressing the “wholly false and seriously defamatory” claims against him. The peer, also a former Tory deputy chairman, was not identified by name in the programme, in which Mr Messham claimed he had been abused by a senior Conservative from the Thatcher era.
However, the airing of the Newsnight special sparked a flurry of public speculation that prompted Lord McAlpine to defend his reputation yesterday.
A full apology was aired on last night’s Newsnight, as one of five edicts from Mr Entwistle. Last night’s BBC statement said: “Mr Messham has tonight made a statement that makes clear he wrongly identified his abuser and has apologised. We also apologise unreservedly for having broadcast this report.”
Mr Messham had earlier said in a statement quoted by the BBC: “After seeing a picture in the past hour of the individual concerned, this [is] not the person I identified by photograph presented to me by the police in the early 1990s, who told me the man in the photograph was Lord McAlpine.
“I want to offer my sincere and humble apologies to him and his family.”
Lord McAlpine has launched legal action against media organisations that he said had defamed his reputation.
Andrew Reid, his lawyer, said: “We have to look at Newsnight and how they behaved”.
The BBC is already in the spotlight over its failure to broadcast a programme on Jimmy Savile’s abusive behaviour.
Steve Hewlett, presenter of the Media Show on BBC Radio 4,
said: “For the BBC, this is a disaster. I am pretty sure this man’s [Mr Messham’s] story had been investigated by the BBC at least twice and dropped because it did not stand up. How on earth did it get on air?”
Lord McAlpine rejected any suggestion he had abused Mr Messham or any other resident of the Bryn Estyn children’s home in Wrexham, North Wales. He said he had visited Wrexham “only once”, and that had been in the company of an agent from Conservative Central Office. They visited a relative of Lord McAlpine and did not stay overnight, he said.
“I have never been to the children’s home in Wrexham, nor have I ever visited any children’s home, reform school or any other institution of a similar
nature,” he said. “I have never stayed in a hotel in or near Wrexham, I did not own a Rolls Royce, have never had a ‘Gold card’ or ‘Harrods card’ and never wear aftershave, all of which have been alleged.”
Lord McAlpine said he had been defamed by “ill- or uninformed commentators” on the internet and “by innuendo” in the written and broadcast media.
“There is a media frenzy and I have to expect that an editor will soon come under pressure to risk naming me,” he said. “My name and the allegations are for all practical purposes linked and in the public domain and I
cannot rewind the clock. I therefore have decided that in order to mitigate, if only to some small extent, the damage to my reputation, I must publicly tackle these slurs and set the record straight.”
His intervention came as a newspaper became the first to name him in connection with the allegations, in a story suggesting he had been the victim of mistaken identity. It quoted Wrexham councillor Keith Gregory, himself a victim of abuse at the Bryn Estyn home, saying he did not believe Lord McAlpine was involved in the scandal.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has warned that the fevered speculation about the identities of those responsible risked becoming a “witch-hunt”, said the issue highlighted his concerns over how paedophilia accusations were reported.
He said: “We must get to the bottom of the allegations that have been made. In doing so, all organisations, all politicians, have to be very careful they do not bandy about allegations and names without thinking about the consequences.”
The UK government has instigated two more abuse-related reviews since Newsnight broadcast Mr Messham’s allegations about failings in the original Waterhouse Inquiry into the care homes scandal – one into the inquiry itself and another into the police’s handling of the claims.
Downing Street yesterday defended the decision to launch fresh inquiries into the abuse scandal, saying: “Serious allegations have been made about the conduct of the police inquiry and the subsequent public inquiry, and it’s right we look into those – and that’s what we are doing.”
The “media frenzy” referred to by Lord McAlpine has also been stoked by the Jimmy Savile scandal, which has enveloped the BBC and several hospitals.
The peer, who lives in Italy and is in poor health, said he was “entirely willing” to meet senior police officers in London as soon as possible “so they can eliminate me from their inquiries and so that any unwarranted suspicion can be removed from me”.
Stuart Newman, the Conservative Central Office agent who Lord McAlpine said accompanied him on his sole visit to Wrexham, is now dead. However, the peer’s solicitors are trying to contact a senior secretary from Central Office at the time “to see if she can remember the precise date I visited”.
Lord McAlpine said he had “every sympathy” with Mr Messham over what had happened and hoped those responsible who had not yet been caught would soon be brought to justice.
Meanwhile, the scandal was threatening last night to engulf Newsnight.
A senior news executive was sent in to supervise the programme, while regular Radio 4 presenter Eddie Mair was chosen to host the edition ahead of the core team.
All BBC co-productions with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have been suspended under other orders issued yesterday.
Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, has also been told to write an urgent report for Mr Entwistle on what happened over the Newsnight investigation.
During last night’s special programme, Mair at one point said: “We wanted to talk to someone from the BBC, but no-one was available.”
His sign-off only added to the growing doubts over the programme’s future. He told viewers: “That’s all we have for tonight. Newsnight will be back on Monday. Probably.”