Down the pan? Examining the Newsnight crisis

Gavin Esler, Jeremy Paxman, George Entwhistle and Kirsty Wark. Montage: Colin Heggie
Gavin Esler, Jeremy Paxman, George Entwhistle and Kirsty Wark. Montage: Colin Heggie
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The BBC director-general is down the pan after a series of serious blunders and other senior jobs are on the line, finds Tom Peterkin.

‘A NEW crisis for Newsnight,” announced Eddie Mair in the most sombre tones he could muster as he introduced the programme he had just name-checked.

“Tonight, this programme apologises,” he continued, as he presented the most bizarre episode of the BBC’s flagship

current affairs programme that has ever been broadcast.

“A key allegation in a report about child abuse was wrong. The abuse

victim says he was mistaken,” Mair added,

neatly summing up the latest bungling misjudgment to afflict the BBC.

As an “unreserved” apology was read out on behalf of the BBC, viewers realised they were witnessing the very public meltdown of one of the corporation’s most respected brands – the late-night programme once known for its fearless investigations and its forensic scrutiny of politicians and the big issues of the day.

How times have changed. On Friday night – with its reputation in tatters – Newsnight was reduced to broadcasting an excruciating report on its own


It was almost beyond parody. In the twittersphere, however, viewers were doing their best. Comparisons with Brass Eye, the controversial Chris Morris show that satirised TV news channels, were

being bandied about by the twitterati.

Those comparisons were hardly discouraged by Mair, who, in fairness, had been placed in an invidious position as a BBC employee. The Scot, best known for his radio work, had become the TV programme’s frontman, in the conspicuous absence of its big-guns Jeremy Paxman, Kirsty Wark and Gavin Esler.

With a straight face, the Scottish presenter found himself saying: “Obviously, we wanted to ask questions of the BBC, but nobody was available for interview.”

What next? Was the BBC going to

dispatch a BBC journalist to doorstep a BBC executive to ask questions about the BBC’s conduct while making a BBC programme, which was then shown on the BBC? Not quite. There was no need. There was more than enough farce already.

Before viewers’ eyes, the magnitude of the mistake made by Newsnight one week before was beginning to emerge. Yesterday morning, the crisis surrounding the programme was only deepened by the appearance of George Entwistle, the

BBC’s new director-general, first, and most brutally, on Radio 4’s Today

programme, where veteran newshound John Humphrys forensically gutted his own boss. Entwistle’s admission that he had only acted when the mistake had been brought to his attention – he was away making a speech – only served to bring his own reputation for effective leadership into grave doubt and ultimately triggered his downfall.

So how did Newsnight, which until

recently had an unblemished record for serious investigative journalism, reach such a state?

The roots were sown last year when programme editors decided to pull an investigation into the sexual activities of Sir Jimmy Savile, the former BBC light entertainment star now exposed as a serial paedophile throughout his time at the corporation. Journalists went to work following Savile’s death and the programme, the BBC claimed, was canned on “editorial grounds” prior to fulsome tributes to the veteran broadcaster being aired during the Christmas period.

The decision, however, was put into the spotlight by a subsequent ITV

expose of Savile last month – using many of the same witnesses – which prompted a flurry of headlines and a series of police and other investigations. Following the furore, the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, “stepped aside” while an investigation into the editorial decision was

carried out by Ken MacQuarrie, controller of BBC Scotland.

Then, nine days ago, a Newsnight report implicated a former senior Conservative Party figure as playing a part in a child abuse scandal. The story was based on the testimony of Steve Messham, a victim of a paedophile ring that operated in a North Wales children’s home, who accused an unnamed Conservative politician of

abusing underage boys.

In the end, Newsnight shied away from naming the Tory, who it said had been

an influential figure in the Thatcher era, on air, but before the programme went out, one of its

makers, Iain Overton, of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, tweeted: “If all goes well, we have got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political

figure who is a paedophile.”

That tweet encouraged a frenzy of

internet speculation. The unfounded conjecture did what Newsnight was afraid to do, and named several Tory politicians as likely suspects.

As the speculation intensified, the name of Lord McAlpine, a Thatcher era party treasurer, cropped up on the

internet time and again. The hysteria and the poor-journalistic judgment

even managed to migrate to ITV last

week. In another piece of car-crash

television, presenter Phillip Schofield confronted Prime Minister David Cameron with a list of internet suspects

without any proof of whether they had done wrong.

In the end, McAlpine felt he had no

option other than to defend his reputation. On Friday, he issued a statement denying the allegations in the strongest terms. He also indicated that he intended to sue the BBC.

On Friday night, Messham himself

offered his “humble apologies” to McAlpine, who was “certainly not the man who abused me”.

Alarmingly, Newsnight’s report into

itself revealed that its investigators did not even go to the trouble of showing Messham a photograph of McAlpine

before the original programme went out. As soon as he was shown McAlpine’s ­photograph, he realised the Tory peer was not his abuser.

The BBC’s exercise in mea-culpa

continued as Mair announced the action taken by the BBC in response to the crisis.

A senior news executive had been brought in to supervise that night’s programme, Mair said. Newsnight investigations had been “paused”. There was the “immediate suspension” of co-productions with the Bureau of Investigations, and

Entwistle had commissioned another report from MacQuarrie into what happened with the Newsnight investigation to be on his desk this morning.

Now Newsnight journalists find themselves under scrutiny for paedophilia

allegations that it did broadcast, as well as the allegations against Jimmy Savile that it didn’t.

Entwistle admitted to Humphrys

yesterday that it was wrong to air the original Newsnight programme. The ­decision to go ahead had been referred to the BBC’s management board, but had not been referred to him as director-general.

In between asking his own boss if he would resign, Humphrys wondered why the BBC’s “editor-in-chief” had not been more proactive in dealing with the crisis.

“So, there is no natural curiosity,” Humphrys said with scarcely disguised contempt. “You wait for somebody to come along to you and say, ‘excuse me

director-general, but this is happening and you may be interested?”

MacQuarrie’s new inquiry comes on top of existing BBC inquiries into the management procedures over the dropping of a Newsnight report into the Savile paedophilia allegations – an investigation that also involves the BBC Scotland director-general.

There is also a BBC investigation into the culture and practices during Savile’s career and current policies, which comes on top of an inquiry into the corporation’s handling of past sexual harassment cases.

As far as Newsnight is concerned, these investigations aim to identify the management and journalistic failings that have led to such a series of blunders, misjudgments and mishaps.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, they will find that Newsnight pressed ahead with the Messham broadcast because of a desire to land a big story that would divert attention from the decision to pull the plug on its investigation into Savile.

Or, more likely, was it a botched attempt by the Newsnight team to regain credibility following the Savile fiasco by producing an agenda-setting investigation? If that was the case, it was a tactic that backfired spectacularly and has caused untold damage to a British journalistic institution that once commanded worldwide respect.

These issues were summed up in the vernacular by Mair, when he posed the following question to his panel of media experts assembled on Friday’s Newsnight programme.

“Is Newsnight toast?” Mair asked.

Entwistle attempted to answer that question on the Today programme yesterday when he said it would be “disproportionate” to shut down Newsnight, but he stressed that if disciplinary action was required, it would be taken. He had no intention of resigning himself, but by 9pm last night all that had changed.

An air of uncertainty remains however over both the future of Newsnight and other senior managers at the corporation itself. Mair summed up the position succinctly in his brilliant sign-off to Friday’s programme. “That’s all we have tonight,” Mair said. “Newsnight will be back on Monday... probably.”