This article was reported and written by Deadline’s London correspondent Joe Utichi and International Editor Nancy Tartaglione:
2ND UPDATE, 6:07 PM: With George Entwistle’s surprise resignation from the BBC Saturday night in the UK, new emphasis falls on his predecessor, Mark Thompson, who is due to start as the New York Times Co.’s new CEO on Monday. He’s been the focus of New York Times editorials in recent weeks which have raised questions about details of his involvement in the cancellation of the Newsnight piece on accused sex abuser Jimmy Savile, which fell under his watch.
But Entwistle had certainly borne the brunt of criticism to date. Now, it casts the wrong kind of shadow on Thompson’s new employers, who seem likely to address the issue before Thompson takes up his post. Media analyst Ken Doctor thinks it’s “more likely Thompson doesn’t start on Monday than he does,” he tells Deadline. “He could well be dragged into parliamentary hearings and inquiries, and even if there’s no guilt or blame there, it’ll keep that story alive for a series of months.” It’s attention the Times doesn’t want as it hits a high point, journalistically. “They’ve done a lot of work on their digital strategy and can take pride in their coverage of key events like the election.” Doctor says. “They’ve been able to define themselves as the white knight preservers of journalism, untainted by scandal. In the wake of the phone hacking scandal, they could always contrast themselves with the Murdoch empire. But as of Monday they’ll have a CEO who is essentially using a similar defense to James Murdoch,” that he was too busy to know what was going on. The next 36 hours will prove crucial as we learn whether the ongoing scandal threatens another media organization.
Additional pressure falls on other key BBC figures, including BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten and director of news Helen Boaden. The corporation has appointed an acting director from outside the news chain to take over from Entwistle. Tim Davie was director of audio and music, and had been announced as the new chief executive of the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. He was due to take up that post in December.
1ST UPDATE, 1:26 PM: BBC director general George Entwistle has just resigned over a botched Newsnight broadcast last week. The program had implicated a senior political figure in a child abuse scandal, but the victim of the alleged abuse subsequently retracted his claim, saying it was a case of mistaken identity. The BBC last night suspended Newsnight‘s investigations. Entwistle said in a statement outside New Broadcasting House in London that resigning was “the honorable thing to do”. He took responsibility as the BBC’s “editor-in-chief” for the “unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2 November” and referenced the continuing Jimmy Savile scandal by saying, “the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader.”
Entwistle lasted just 54 days into the job, with the Telegraph reporting a final blow when BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten was pressured to issue a vote of confidence in Entwistle’s leadership and refused. Entwistle had earlier crumbled under questioning by BBC Radio 4’s Today program over this latest Newsnight scandal. Entwistle again insisted he’d been unaware of Newsnight‘s plan to broadcast its allegations, and learned of them only after they went to air. In fact Newsnight journalist Iain Overton had even teased the program’s contents on Twitter earlier in the day. Entwistle said he hadn’t been briefed and didn’t watch the program. “I was out” he said.
PREVIOUSLY, 3:03 AM: As inquiries into the Jimmy Savile scandal continue, BBC management and governance are falling under increasing scrutiny. And one question raised more than any other is that of the role of the BBC’s director general. There are currently two ongoing internal inquiries. One is examining the culture and practices of the BBC that may have allowed the sexual abuse of minors allegedly perpetrated by late Top Of The Pops host Savile on its premises. The other is looking at the controversial 2011 shelving of a BBC Newsnight investigation that might have exposed Savile’s alleged wrongdoing. (Complicating matters, a new Newsnight scandal erupted Friday when an unrelated investigation was discredited leading the BBC to issue an apology and suspend the show indefinitely.) For Newsonomics media analyst Ken Doctor, the corporation’s handling of the Savile crisis has reinforced the stereotypes of its ailing bureaucracy. “Until there is more clarity about who knew what when, the cloud is going to persist,” he tells Deadline. Still, he urges caution of the response by British media.
In a recent editorial in the London Times, former BBC producer David Elstein, who is now chairman of openDemocracy.net and the Broadcasting Policy Group, suggested a common refrain of the corporation’s head in times of crisis is that the monolithic BBC has too much going on, editorially and strategically, for the director general to manage every decision. Doctor insists that in general, “incompetence rules over conspiracy,” yet allows, “The BBC bears part of the responsibility for questions that an active management should have known about and acted upon with some aggressiveness” regarding the Newsnight cancellation. “Clearly the BBC has always been a cumbersome bureaucracy and this scandal puts it in its worst light, but much of the opinion about it is not above-board opinion. It’s inflected by business competition to the BBC that has long been in place.”
Sometime harsh BBC critic Rupert Murdoch owns the Times and a large swath of the British press, but his papers are not alone in questioning the Beeb’s handling of the scandal. Both Mark Thompson, the former BBC chief who is due to take over as CEO of The New York Times Company on Monday, and current BBC chief George Entwistle, have been roundly criticized for a lack of knowledge about what was happening at the BBC when in December of 2011, their own Newsnight program was investigating Savile’s alleged crimes. The recent developments have also led New York Times journalists to question Thompson’s handling of the matter and fitness for his new post.
Thompson was the man in charge when the decision was made to drop the 2011 Newsnight Savile probe. But he told The New York Times in October he was not aware of the investigation until after the report was spiked. Regarding more recent emails relating to Savile, a “source close to Thompson” told the London Times that the executive had not read those received by his office and that rather they had been dealt with by his staff because “he got hundreds of e-mails a day.”
Entwistle for his part was accused of a “lamentable lack of editorial curiosity” by a parliamentary select committee last month and professed to gaps in his awareness. In 2011, Entwistle was in charge of the corporation’s television output under Thompson, and so had responsibility for Newsnight. He said he reasoned that asking too many questions might lead people to think he was showing “undue interest.” On Friday, he reiterated fears that the scandal had damaged public trust in the BBC and that it had to “acknowledge responsibility, apologize to victims” and commit “to finding out what happened, and cooperate as closely as possible with the police,” according to The Guardian. “Even as we do all this,” he said, “I recognize it will take time before we can hope to regain the trust of our audiences.”
London Times‘ editorialist Elstein believes the BBC Trust – the corporation’s governing body – should be broken up and the broadcaster placed under the stewardship of UK regulator Ofcom with clear departmental lines drawn. These changes are doubtless beyond the remit of the BBC’s two internal inquiries. Regardless, the BBC’s stuttered response to the unfolding scandal suggests that the internal investigations should proceed as transparently as possible. In the wake of rival ITV’s October exposé that blew the lid off the Savile scandal, the BBC’s Panorama current affairs program ran its own investigative report into the matter. And, as Entwistle told Parliament, that broadcast exemplified the BBC’s ability to “[ask] questions of itself no other media organization on Earth would do.”