Crisis talks at BBC as chairman seeks new leader

The Guardian, LONDON

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 - Page 7

The BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, held an emergency meeting on Sunday evening as the broadcaster reeled from the humiliating Saturday night resignation of the director general, George Entwistle, after just 53 days in the top job in British television.

The BBC chairman, Lord Patten, said privately that he expected to speak again to the director general candidates Caroline Thomson, the BBC’s former chief operating officer, Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive and “one or two other names” in a bid to rapidly recruit a new leader for the crisis-hit broadcaster.

Patten — also under fire for choosing the underperforming Entwistle — told the Andrew Marr Show on television channel BBC1 that the BBC Trust would have to appoint a successor “with a few weeks rather than a lot of months.” Interviewing previously shortlisted candidates and a few chosen others could help him achieve that.

It emerged last night that Entwistle is to receive a £450,000 (US$714,000) payoff — equivalent to a year’s salary — even though he stepped down having concluded that the BBC “should appoint a new leader” after he struggled to contend with the fallout from the Jimmy Savile child abuse crisis.

Amid repeated comparisons to the Hutton crisis that led to the departure of the BBC’s then director general, Greg Dyke, and its chairman, Gavyn Davies, in 2004, the office of British Prime Minister David Cameron remained determined to keep its distance — thereby avoiding accusations it was capitalizing on the BBC’s weakness for political benefit.

With Cameron being kept informed by his director of communications, the former BBC editor David Oliver, Downing Street was indicating it wanted Patten to be given time to assert his grip on the broadcaster. The opposition Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, tweeting, said that the BBC needed to put in place “a strong [director general]” and that it was necessary “to restore trust in one of our great national institutions.”

Entwistle’s departure also did little to steady nerves inside a rumor-hit BBC, with journalists working on the Newsnight flagship current affairs program still unclear if it were to be aired as usual last night, pending an emergency review of the circumstances surrounding a report that wrongly linked the former Conservative party treasurer Lord McAlpine to child sexual abuse.

The acting director general, Tim Davie, was expected to set out his plans yesterday for dealing with the crisis created by the Newsnight broadcast.

Insiders said there were some internal doubts over the Newsnight film, which although it did not name McAlpine, referred to historic allegations connected with a north Wales child abuse scandal in such a way that it was possible to easily identify him via the Internet.

It is understood that Newsnight’s political editor, Allegra Stratton, had such grave concerns over the allegations made by abuse victim Steve Messham and the possible Twitter implications for those involved that she refused to conduct a two-way interview for the program. However, Stratton would not confirm this on Sunday night.

There was also talk of fierce battles at the top of the BBC, as Davie attempted to ease the crisis — and speculation that other BBC executives had come under pressure to step aside from their roles while various inquiries into Newsnight continue.

Patten indicated that he was keen on a wider structural overhaul of the corporation, offering vague proposals to appoint a strong “editorial figure” to complement the work of the director general. The chairman said “there is a case” for splitting the roles of director general and editor-in-chief, although this would require an emergency rewrite of the BBC’s governing royal charter.

An emergency review into the erroneous McAlpine report led by Ken MacQuarrie, the head of BBC Scotland, was sent to Davie on Sunday — while a second review, the Nick Pollard review of last year’s decision to axe an investigation into sexual abuse by Savile, is due to begin holding interviews with those at the heart of that affair this week.

The BBC Trust also met Davie to hear the outcome of the MacQuarrie review, with the body saying that it was “looking forward to him setting out … his plans” for dealing with “some of [the] issues” arising from the McAlpine broadcast.