Atholl Duncan: Newsnight must be sacrificed to save BBC journalism’s reputation

BBC headquarters in London. Picture: AP
BBC headquarters in London. Picture: AP
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THE director-general may have resigned over the botched Newsnight investigation, but none of the key questions over BBC journalism’s darkest hour has yet been answered.

BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie’s rapid investigation into what went wrong was due on the DG’s empty desk yesterday. MacQuarrie is good for the job – a man of high integrity, meticulous and independent from the culture and assumptions of London BBC News. His findings must be acted upon immediately.

The journalists and programme executives in the chain of command, who have erred in judgment, must also go – not just to satisfy more media and political bloodlust, but to show that those responsible are responsible. The Newsnight brand must be sacrificed to save the global reputation of BBC journalism. The governance and oversight of such investigations must be reformed. The role of chief executive and editor-in-chief must be split, and the BBC must settle damages with Lord McAlpine as soon as possible. The acting DG, Tim Davie, and the chairman of the Trust, Lord Patten, must be seen to be acting decisively and immediately to make these things happen.

The BBC should consider the case of the Irish news broadcaster, RTE, whose darkest days were suffered after broadcasting entirely false allegations that a priest had had sex with a minor and fathered a child. They ignored the priest’s denials and his request to carry out a paternity test. They were wrong. The priest was right. In a scandal that rocked the Republic, the flagship programme PrimeTime Investigates was scrapped, the news bosses were replaced and their editorial governance completely rebuilt.

What I find most difficult to comprehend is why the allegations in the Newsnight story were not put to Lord McAlpine before the story was broadcast. In my 25 years of carrying out and overseeing investigative journalism, I know that at the moment when you confront the name in your frame, you nearly always learn something new or something that alters your story. In this case, the journalists would have heard a response that would surely have led them, at the very least, to carry out further checks. The fact that the Newsnight team had decided not to name Lord McAlpine is irrelevant. The inevitable consequence of running the story is that his name would out.

I also find it extremely surprising that the investigation seemed to be a joint effort with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University. Since when did the BBC outsource serious investigative journalism?

The editorial governance, checks and balances appear to be in disarray. A story that claims to prove a senior Tory grandee is a child abuser is no run-of-the-mill investigation. How the evidence wasn’t picked apart when challenged by senior editorial and legal figures is the most difficult thing to grasp. I am told the three BBC News executives who I would rely on to get these things right were not involved, as they have been pushed aside to accommodate the Savile Newsnight inquiry.

Trust in the BBC and its journalism has now been severely, perhaps irrevocably, damaged. The McAlpine blunder is far more serious for BBC journalism than spiking the Newsnight Savile investigation. As a former BBC news editor, I can understand why the Newsnight editor did the latter – even if I don’t agree with it. After all, it is better to pull a story than to run it and be catastrophically wrong. However, I can’t understand why the “Tory grandee child abuse story” ever made the airwaves.

We must also know more about the actions of the reporter on this story, Angus Stickler. What did he do to verify the identity of the man he accused of paedophilia? Stickler works for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and was seconded to the BBC for this story. This is an arrangement which is unusual, if not unprecedented, and should not be allowed in future.

BBC journalism is respected globally for its quality, accuracy and trustworthieness. It is one of the most valuable things in the world. Break the trust, weaken or shackle BBC journalism and you have a much poorer society at home and abroad. The stakes could not be higher. When Eddie Mair closed Friday night’s apology edition of Newsnight he told viewers, “Newsnight will be back on Monday. Probably”.

The programme will go on air tonight, but this gravest of errors of judgment means that the flagship show’s days are numbered. It will surely now be axed in an act of repentance, just like the News of the World.

• Atholl Duncan is a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland and the creator of BBC Scotland’s investigative journalism unit.