‘Schoolboy errors’ at BBC led to Newsnight fiasco

BBC employees arrive for work at the beleaguered broadcaster. Picture: Getty
BBC employees arrive for work at the beleaguered broadcaster. Picture: Getty
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The BBC’s botched Newsnight programme that wrongly implicated a Tory peer in a child sex abuse scandal failed to complete “basic journalistic checks”, an official report has found.

There was also confusion about who had ultimate responsibility for “final editorial sign-off” on the story, which mistakenly implicated Lord McAlpine.

A report by BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie into the Newsnight blunders found the programme’s editorial management structure had been “seriously weakened” as a result of the editor having to step aside over the Jimmy Savile scandal, and the departure of the deputy editor.

The problems in the programme stemmed from two different sign-off processes being put in place as a result of continuing inquiries into Savile, the report found.

The programme led to the departure of director-general George Entwistle on Saturday night.

Acting director-general Tim Davie vowed yesterday to “get a grip” at the corporation, and two of the broadcaster’s most senior news executives “stepped aside” from their roles.

Mr Davie stressed that he had set up a “clear line of command” at the BBC’s news department since taking up his post on Saturday, but he insisted it remained too early to take disciplinary action against those who may have erred.

The corporation’s director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, yesterday left their positions pending an internal review into the way allegations against Savile were handled.

In his report released last night, Mr MacQuarrie said there had been a “separation between ‘business-as-usual’ stories and ‘Savile-related’ stories”, with a separate chain of command for anything to do with Savile.

He said: “It was not clear whether this story was regarded as Savile-related or not, or when that decision was made and communicated: a clear decision on this does not appear to have been taken until lunchtime on Friday, 2 November [the date it was broadcast].

“As a consequence, there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility for the Newsnight report, particularly in the days leading up to the day of transmission.”

Mr MacQuarrie went on: “There was a different understanding by the key parties about where the responsibility lay for the final editorial sign-off for the story on the day.”

He also said there were shortcomings in the quality of the journalism.

“During the editorial decision-making process, some of the basic journalistic checks were not completed,” he said.

“Specifically, identification was not confirmed by photograph with the first victim. The second victim could not be traced in order to provide up-to-date corroboration.”

Although legal advice was sought over the report, no right of reply was offered to the unnamed individual at the centre of the allegation.

The programme featured an interview with Steve Messham, an abuse victim who said a senior political figure of the time had abused him. He later said he had wrongly identified his abuser and apologised.

At the time of the broadcast, the programme’s editor, Peter Rippon, had stepped aside as a result of the Savile furore. An independent inquiry, the Pollard Review, is looking into the circumstances behind the shelving of a Newsnight report late last year into the now dead DJ’s abuse. The BBC’s executive board called the failings “unacceptable”.

Yesterday, it brought in a single chain of command for news output once again. It is now seeking “as a matter of urgency” to fill a vacancy for a non-executive director of the BBC – a senior external figure with a background in “overseeing journalism”.

The BBC Trust said last night that Mr MacQuarrie’s findings of “serious failures” were “very concerning”.

Earlier yesterday, Mr Davie emphasised that mistakes had been made surrounding the broadcast of the Newsnight report which wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine.

He said: “There were some journalistic errors … we’ve apologised unreservedly.

“This organisation has lost a very good director-general. We’ve had an honourable man leave the BBC. My job now is to get a grip of the situation and take action.

“We have appointed a new editor of Newsnight to get a grip of the situation, and that’s what we’re really focused on, which is to put a clear line of command into news so that we build the trust of the BBC.”

He went on: “There may be disciplinary action, but I want to be fair to people. I don’t subscribe to the view that you should act very quickly in that regard and be unreasonable. The BBC has lost a director-general in this process. That in itself is very significant, and he has taken responsibility.”

Mr Davie said he had “got a full grip of the situation by clarifying exactly who’s in charge”, adding: “The first decision I’ve made is to get a grip of that, take action and build trust by putting a clear line of command in.”

Culture Secretary Maria Miller called for stability at the beleaguered organisation, urging the BBC Trust to “act swiftly” to resolve management and leadership issues.