Just days after a wave of criticism forced George Entwistle, the director general of the BBC, to resign, the British broadcasting behemoth announced two additional staffing changes on Monday, as the head of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy Stephen Mitchell, were forced to step down—at least temporarily—in the aftermath of a November news report that falsely accused Lord McAlpine, a senior Tory politician, of raping a teenage boy.
Neither Boaden nor Mitchell had anything to do with the botched report on the BBC's flagship program, Newsnight. Rather, the announcement came in light of a pending investigation into why a separate Newsnight report about allegations of sexual abuse against longtime BBC star Jimmy Savile was cancelled.
Two months ago, within a week of beginning his job as director general, Entwistle was confronted by allegations on ITV, a competing channel, that Savile, who died in 2011, had sexually abused a number of underage teens, mostly girls. The BBC was hit, in the graphic words of the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, by a “tsunami of filth,” as the allegations about Savile went back four decades.
Hours after the ITV report, it emerged that Newsnight had planned to run an investigation about the Sevile sex abuse allegations in December of last year, not long after the BBC star’s death. The editor of the segment, Peter Rippon, said he had pulled the investigation because of lack of evidence. Instead a series of tributes to the deceased celebrity were aired across the BBC’s radio and TV network.
Rippon’s explanation for scuppering the investigation was initially accepted by both Entwistle and the BBC Trust—until two BBC investigative journalists who were involved in the segment contested it, and revealed that the cancelled program was almost exactly the same as the ITV report. Soon Rippon resigned from his job as Newsnight editor, and critics set their sights on Entwistle.
In late 2011, Entwistle was the head of BBC television, and thus ultimately responsible for airing the tributes to Savile. He reportedly had a brief conversation with Boaden, the BBC’s head of news, about the Newsnight Savile expose at an awards dinner before it was cancelled. That conversation is now the subject of the investigation, which is being headed by Nick Pollard, the former head of Sky News, one of the BBC’s competitors.
At the time, both Entwistle and Boaden were in the running to take over the BBC from then director general Mark Thompson, who on Monday started in his role as the new chief executive at The New York Times. (Thompson has claimed he was not informed of the decision to cancel the Savile expose, though he later admitted that he had a brief discussion with a journalist about it during a Christmas party).
Entwistle’s tenure as BBC director general—just 54 days—is the shortest on record, and marks the third time in the last 25 years that a director general has been forced to resign because of the BBC’s news coverage. In 1987, Alasdair Milne was forced out under pressure from the Thatcher government, because of the way the BBC covered the conflict in Northern Ireland. Nearly two decades later, Greg Dyke resigned over the BBC’s coverage of the case for ousting Saddam Hussein the lead up to the second Iraq War.
Despite the magnitude of the Savile scandal and the subsequent botched news report, the cloud of controversy hovering over the BBC is far from the biggest crisis in the broadcaster’s 85-year history. Thought the corporation is guaranteed to be independent from the state by a charter, several prime ministers have planned to revoke that independence including Winston Churchill during a general strike in the 1920s, and Sir Anthony Eden during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
Over the years, the BBC has been assailed by both Tory and Labour governments, and the current crisis has only encouraged some inveterate critics to pile on. On the libertarian right, the public broadcaster is seen as anathema, and on Monday conservative MPs debating the current crisis in the House of Commons soon moved on to the legitimacy of the license fee. Though not adored on the left, the BBC is despised for its alleged liberal bias on the hard right. Even David Cameron, whose coalition government announced a 16 percent cut in the BBC budget two years ago, was reported to find this bit of austerity particularly “delicious.” According to evidence presented to the Leveson Committee on press ethics earlier this year, James Murdoch, then chair of BSkyB, was urging the prime minister to make much more severe cuts to the public broadcaster.
Up until recently, before his resignation amid allegations of phone hacking at various News Corp. subsidiaries, Murdoch was in charge of two of the BBC's main commercial rivals. Over the past month, News Corp’s best-selling daily, The Sun, has hammered the BBC over the Savile scandal, and on Monday was demanding the resignation of the chair of the BBC Trust.
A year ago The Sun was found guilty of reporting false allegations of child sex abuse and no one resigned. And as critics point out, the ironies don’t end there. Entwistle resigned after suffering a 15-minute grilling by John Humphry’s on the morning radio news program, Today. In contrast, Rupert Murdoch received just a brief grilling over the phone hacking scandal on Fox News. The Sun is also up in arms about Entwistle’s retirement pay out - some $800,000. But former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, due to face trial for alleged phone hacking reportedly received a severance package worth roughly $12 million.
The attacks on rivals has now extended to the Labour MP, Tom Watson, who was one of the few campaigning for years to expose the phone hacking at the now shuttered News of the World, and whose statement in Parliament in October brought up the allegations of a pedophile ring with political connections. Both The Spectator and The Daily Mail have suggested that the discredited Newsnight report exposes him as a “zealot” conducting a “witchhunt” against Tories through false allegations. However, as Watson explained to The Daily Beast in November, before the BBC aired the Newsnight investigation, the pedophile ring he mentioned in Parliament was entirely separate from the one mentioned on the program.
As this frenzy of apparent vendettas continues, many such as Owen Jones, writing in Monday’s Independent point out that the multiple victims of institutional abuse could soon be forgotten or ignored in the process. And that’s yet another scandal.