BBC chief admits Newsnight politician sex abuse claims should never have aired
Published 10/11/2012 | 12:08
THE BBC's director general George Entwistle has admitted the Newsnight film which wrongly accused a senior Conservative figure of child abuse should never have been broadcast, but refused to resign.
Mr Entwistle also refused to consider scrapping Newsnight entirely, saying it had a "proud record" of investigative journalism over 30 years which would continue.
However Mr Entwistle, who is also the BBC's editor in chief, admitted he had not seen the Newsnight transmission that made the claims until the day after it was broadcast – having left it to managers below him to check its content.
His admission came after the key witness in last Friday's Newsnight report alleging that senior Tory, Lord McAlpine, was a paedophile admitted that he identified the wrong man.
The Conservative grandee, a party treasurer under Baroness Thatcher, was not identified in the Newsnight programme, but a Tweet trailing the programme sparked widespread speculation on the internet, with Lord McAlpine's name widely referred to on social networking sites and blogs.
Mr Entwistle, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, said: "We made a film that relied upon a witness who yesterday came out and said he had made a mistaken identification. That identification was wrong. We should not have put out a film that was so fundamentally wrong. What happened here is completely unacceptable.
Asked by presenter John Humphrys whether he believed he should resign over the issue, Mr Entwistle responded: "No, I was appointed director general. The director general isn’t appointed just to do deal with things that go well, but also when things go badly.
"I am doing the right things to try and put this stuff straight. I am accountable to the [BBC] Trust in that endeavour. If they do not feel I am doing the right things, then obviously I will be bound by their judgment,"
The latest furore surrounding the Newsnight is being described by some commentators as "its darkest hour", with the corporation being forced to apologise “unreservedly” last night for broadcasting the child sex abuse allegations.
In a statement the BBC said of the programme: “We broadcast Mr Messham’s claim, but did not identify the individual concerned.
"Mr Messham has tonight made a statement that makes clear he wrongly identified his abuser and has apologised. We also apologise unreservedly for having broadcast this report.”
Mr Entwistle admitted he had not seen the Twitter message which sparked the speculation about Lord McAlpine and neither had the Tweet been brought to his attention until after the Newsnight film had been broadcast.
He also admitted that no senior news executive had brought the item to his attention prior to transmission.
"I heard about it the following day" said Mr Entwistle, who did not watch the Newsnight film the night it was broadcast as he had gone out for the evening.
Mr Entwistle has ordered BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie to prepare an urgent report for him by tomorrow covering what happened on the programme’s investigation into the north Wales children’s home scandal.
He said: "I have taken clear and decisive action to start to find out what happened and put things right. Further action will follow from that - disciplinary if necessary."
In the meantime there will be an immediate pause in all Newsnight investigations to assess editorial robustness and supervision.
The BBC is also suspending all co-productions with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which worked with Newsnight on the investigation.
Breaking his silence for the first time since the scandal erupted, Lord McAlpine yesterday condemned the “wholly false and seriously defamatory” claims against him. His solicitors suggested that they would sue Newsnight, which was previously heavily criticised after it dropped an investigation into Jimmy Savile’s decades of child abuse.
Rob Wilson, a Conservative MP who sits on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said the November 2 broadcast alleging that a senior Thatcher-era Tory was a paedophile had triggered a “wave of innuendo and smears”.
He described the film as Newsnight's "darkest hour".
He added: “This brings into question whether their report was either fair or responsible. It is my view that this report was at best ill-advised and at worst incendiary, and could have damaged the reputation of an innocent man.”
John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, questioned why the investigation by Newsnight had not been referred to the director general.
He said: "At the end of the day, the director general of the BBC is editor-in-chief. I would have expected a programme making as serious allegations as these to have gone to him for clearance.
"This has done immense damage to the reputation of the BBC. That should be of huge concern to the Trust and to the director general.
"I certainly think somebody needs to take responsibility for this."
The BBC's apology was read out in full at the start of last night’s Newsnight and the first section of the show was given over to the controversy.
Presenter Eddie Mair ended the programme by saying: “Newsnight will be back on Monday, probably.”
The latest BBC furore raises questions about whether Newsnight rushed into running a highly sensitive child abuse story in an attempt to rebuild its credibility after the damaging controversy over the scrapped Savile investigation.
Several commentators pointed out the bitter irony of the programme’s failure to identify a genuine paedophile before it targeted an innocent man.
Andrew Neil, the broadcaster, said the very future of Newsnight was now in doubt.
Lord McAlpine’s name circulated widely online after Mr Messham, a former resident of the Bryn Estyn care home in Wrexham, told the programme that he had been repeatedly abused by a high-ranking Tory politician.
However, evidence emerged yesterday suggesting that the peer may have been mistaken for another member of the McAlpine family.
Mr Messham confirmed last night that he had been wrong and issued a statement in which he offered his “sincere and humble apologies” to Lord McAlpine.
He also suggested that journalists working for Newsnight had not shown him a photograph of the Tory peer to confirm his identity.
He said: “After seeing a picture in the past hour of the individual concerned, this [is] not the person I identified by a photograph presented to me by the police in the early 1990s, who told me the man in the photograph was Lord McAlpine.”
Lord McAlpine’s lawyers said they would take legal action against “all media” who had defamed his reputation.
They singled out Newsnight and ITV1’s This Morning, which was criticised after a list of supposed paedophiles was inadvertently shown to viewers as the presenter Phillip Schofield handed it to Mr Cameron.
Andrew Reid, of RMPI LLP, the solicitors who are representing Lord McAlpine, said the two “respected” programmes had between them informed most of the country about “something that simply is a complete lie”.
“What I think is so wrong is that Newsnight trailed this and encouraged people that some major revelation was going to come about, and that they actually were going to name this individual, but then they took what I think is the coward’s way out,” he told Radio 4’s PM.
“They ran the programme, trailed it and then told everyone where to go and look for the name. In my view that’s just creating the defamation. They have done a very, very good job of severely damaging Lord McAlpine’s reputation.”
Lord McAlpine released a strongly-worded statement yesterday addressing the “slurs” against him.
He said he had visited Wrexham only once, and that was in the company of an agent from Conservative Central Office.
“I have never been to the children’s home in Wrexham, nor have I ever visited any children’s home, reform school or any other institution of a similar nature,” he said. “I have never stayed in a hotel in or near Wrexham, I did not own a Rolls-Royce, have never had a 'Gold card’ or 'Harrods card’ and never wear aftershave, all of which have been alleged.
“I did not sexually abuse Mr Messham or any other residents of the children’s home in Wrexham.”