The British media world was once again in shock tonight with news that the director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle, has resigned after less than two months in the job.
Entwistle’s troubles started in early October, when ITV revealed that one of the BBC’s biggest stars, the DJ and presenter Sir Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011, was allegedly a prolific abuser of minors—on occasion on BBC property. The Metropolitan police have since launched a major inquiry and identified at least 300 potential victims from Savile’s 30 years as a high-profile celebrity at Britain’s respected public-service broadcaster. The head of the BBC Trust, the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, described the allegations as a “tsunami of filth.”
But Enwistle’s problems were aggravated further by revelations that the BBC’s flagship current-affairs daily, Newsnight, had prepared an exposé of Savile’s abuse in the weeks after his death. The investigation was canceled, and instead three tribute programs to Savile were aired over the 2011 Christmas period. Entwistle was then in charge of the tribute programs. He spoke to the head of news, Helen Boaden, about the Newsnight investigation for “less than 10 seconds” during an awards lunch.
After the same allegations were aired 10 months later on rival commercial channel ITV, Entwistle defended the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, for his decision not to run the story. However, an investigation into Savile’s alleged abuse by a sister BBC current-affairs program, Panorama, questioned Rippon’s version of events. He was forced to step aside two weeks ago.
Then came the killer blow. Last Friday, as if to compensate for its previous caution, Newsnight ran a much trailed investigation, in cooperation with the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, into further allegations of historic unreported child abuse. This followed Labour M.P. Tom Watson’s explosive allegations in the House of Commons that a politician with connections to 10 Downing Street had—according to two child-protection workers—been involved in a pedophile ring. The Newsnight report spoke to a victim of a notorious case of institutional child abuse in North Wales. Stephen Messham claimed he was raped repeatedly by a “senior Tory politician” in the 1980s. Though the program did not name the politician, social media soon did—with both journalists and members of the public repeating the alleged politician’s name on Twitter.
Watson told The Daily Beast last week that these new allegations were unrelated to his parliamentary statement, but the reaction to the Newsnight documentary was furor in Parliament, with both Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May launching no less than four police and public inquiries.
On Thursday, Lord McAlpine, a major fundraiser during Margaret Thatcher’s administration, denied the rumors vehemently as defamation, and The Guardian exposed Messham’s allegations as a case of “mistaken identity.” Messham retracted, claiming he had been told the wrong name by the police during an interview in the early ’90s. Newsnight went on air Friday with a prolonged apology and discussion of its own mistakes, one of the most excruciating examples of self-flagellation ever seen on British TV.
At the core of the BBC is its news service, and previous crises—the resignations of Greg Dyke in 2004 and of Alasdair Milne in 1987—have all been due to controversial or politically contentious news reporting, in those instances over the Iraq War and the Northern Ireland troubles. The erroneous implication that a senior Tory was a child sex abuser was probably more explosive still, and it fell on the head of Entwistle, a BBC insider still new to the job, to explain what went wrong.
Entwistle appeared on BBC Radio 4’s respected and popular news program Today on Saturday to suffer a 15-minute grilling by one of its most tenacious presenters, John Humphrys. Entwistle claimed not to have known about the Newsnight exposé before it broadcast, or the Guardian report when it was published, and generally sounded out of his depth. Within hours, one of his top presenters, the BBC’s chief economics editor, Robert Peston, retweeted a statement from the Liberal peer Lord Oakeshott that the director general sounded “inexperienced” and “naive.” The writing was on the wall.
Entwistle’s resignation does little to abate the crisis that has engulfed the corporation. The Newsnight fiasco last week partially happened because so many in senior management had recused themselves or resigned in the wake of failing to run the Savile investigation. It also takes place against severe cuts imposed on the BBC by the coalition government two years ago.
The head of the BBC Trust described the allegations as a “tsunami of filth.”
The loss of Entwistle, who planned to drive through major changes, leaves the corporation—which often draws the ire of politicians for its attempts at bipartisan neutrality—dangerously exposed during a politically tumultuous time. Already the issue has become politicized, with the Conservative Culture Secretary Maria Miller commending the resignation, while M.P. Ben Bradshaw, a Labour member of the culture select committee, calls Entwistle’s quitting “a tragedy.”
BBC veteran David Dimbleby says the BBC “resembles a rudderless ship heading towards the rocks,” while Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman is more emphatic: “He [Entwistle] has been brought low by cowards and incompetents” who “compounded the problem by enforcing a series of cuts on program budgets, while bloating the management,” he said in a statement through his agent.
With Entwistle gone, the scandal also looks set to sweep across the Atlantic. The decision to run three tributes to Savile rather than an exposure of his sexual abuse was made when Mark Thompson was editor in chief. Sources close to the story tell The Daily Beast that Thompson’s claims that he knew little about the cancellation of the initial inquiry might not withstand scrutiny, and—as two New York Times columnists have written recently—his journalistic legacy has been severely questioned since his appointment as CEO of The New York Times this summer.
Mark Thompson takes up his new post in New York on Monday—when the travails of his former employer might well be making the front pages of his own paper.