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BBC news chief steps down amid pedophilia scandal

A pedestrian walks past a BBC logo at Broadcasting House in central London October 22, 2012.

Olivia Harris/Reuters

The British Broadcasting Corporation says a pedophilia scandal, which brewed unseen for decades within its walls, was the primary cause of an ugly episode that forced its director-general George Entwistle from office over the weekend and has thrown top management into open conflict with the corporation.

On Monday, BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie said editorial management at its flagship news magazine Newsnight had been "seriously weakened" in the wake of revelations the program had halted an investigation last year into allegations of child sexual abuse by the BBC's popular TV presenter Jimmy Savile. That paved the way for Newsnight to air a program on Nov. 2 for which "some of the basic journalistic checks were not completed," according to a report issued Monday by Mr. MacQuarrie. The program falsely alleged that a senior Conservative politician had molested a child in the 1980s. In the wake of the controversy, Mr. Entwistle resigned Saturday night after only 54 days on the job.

Mr. MacQuarrie noted that Newsnight's top editor Peter Rippon had stepped aside on Oct. 22 to allow an unobstructed inquiry by the independent journalist Nick Pollard into the program's failure to air a damning documentary about alleged molestation by Mr. Savile, who died last year.

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After Mr. Rippon stepped aside, Newsnight instituted a new editorial process that established a "separate editorial chain of command for all Savile-related material," according to Mr. MacQuarrie. But there was confusion within Newsnight offices over whether its latest report was related to the Savile scandal. As a result, "There was a different understanding by the key parties about where the responsibility lay for the final editorial sign off for the story."

Mr. MacQuarrie noted the program was dealing with "a highly complex story that went from commission to transmission within (six days)."

On Monday, BBC announced its director of news Helen Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell had stepped aside pending the outcome of the Pollard investigation. But the BBC's business editor Robert Preston wrote on his blog that neither executive was "in the decision-making chain that led to Newsnight's [Nov. 2] broadcast." He added that lawyers for the executives are fighting the BBC's decision to remove them.

In a statement, the BBC said the program's failings "are unacceptable, and the Executive Board is taking clear and decisive action … to restore public trust in the BBC's journalism."

The episode also claimed another award-winning journalist, after Iain Overton, the founder and editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism resigned on Monday. The Bureau, a not-for-profit news outfit dedicated to public interest stories, had collaborated on the report with the BBC.

Even as the Pollard inquiry continues, the Savile scandal has thrown a cloud around Mark Thompson, the media executive who presided over the BBC as director-general for eight years until he resigned in September to become the president and CEO of the New York Times Company. He started that job Monday.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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