May 28, 2023

Top BBC Figures Acknowledge ‘Errors’ in Reporting Scandals

But, addressing a parliamentary panel, one of them, Chris Patten, the head of the supervisory BBC Trust, offered an unusually insistent defense of the former director, George Entwistle, whom he had hired, and who had been labeled hapless and bumbling by many politicians and newspaper columnists before and after his resignation on Nov. 10.

“The easiest thing to do is to join in the general trashing of a decent man and I’m not going to do that,” Lord Patten told lawmakers, describing Mr. Entwistle as “a decent man” who “doesn’t deserve to be bullied or have his character demolished.”

But Lord Patten, Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong in the 1990s and a public figure of long standing, balked at questioning by one lawmaker, Conservative Philip Davies, who pressed him to provide an itinerary of his work schedule at the BBC. “Certainly not,” he said. “I think it’s a thoroughly impertinent question.”

“What is the role of it? Do you want to know my toilet habits?”

Lord Patten and Tim Davie, the acting BBC director general, were addressing a parliamentary panel known for often aggressive interrogations in scandals at Britain’s newspapers and broadcasters. They were speaking just days before an another inquiry into the separate phone hacking scandal, mainly at Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper outpost, is to deliver a long-awaited report that could lead to tighter regulation of the rambunctious British press.

The combination of inquiries and findings seemed to illustrate once more the intense scrutiny faced by journalists and editors in Britain at a time when the news business is struggling to make a painful and costly adjustment to the digital era. The newspaper scandal, in particular, has drawn in British politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron, who have testified about what seems to have been a cozy relationship with Murdoch executives.

But Mr. Davie said that, while the BBC, a British national institution, was going through a “major crisis,” it was not in chaos. “This is not an organization that is falling apart internally,” he said.

Lord Patten has played a central and frequently contentious role in seeking to find a way out of the BBC’s current crisis. Mr. Davie, a former head of BBC radio operations, has been the interim head of the BBC since Mr. Entwistle resigned after only 54 days in office. Sitting side by side to face lawmakers, the two men were appearing before the panel for the first time since Mr. Entwistle’s departure.

One issue before the parliamentary select committee on culture, media and sport was a decision by Lord Patten to authorize resignation benefits to Mr. Entwistle including a payoff equivalent to a full year’s salary of $750,000, twice the contractual obligation.

Lord Patten said on Tuesday that, in negotiations with Mr. Entwistle, “we either had to deal with it quickly there and then, broadly speaking on the terms of 12 months” salary as a payoff, or go through other procedures for compensation base0d on constructive and unfair dismissal, which would have cost the corporation a further $128,000.

“What did we get in return?” Lord Patten said. “First of all, we got a settlement that was less than we would have got had we gone through constructive dismissal.” And second, he said, if any of the current inquiries finds that Mr. Entwistle “has done anything which is in breach of his contract or the BBC disciplinary guidelines, we can claw back some of the remunerations that has been paid.”

Mr. Entwistle appeared before the panel on Oct. 23 when its attention was focused on a decision a year ago by the editor of the “Newsnight” current affairs program to cancel an investigation into the sexual misconduct of Jimmy Savile, a longtime television host who died in Oct. 2011 at age 84. The BBC was also preparing Christmastime programs paying tribute to Mr. Savile.

At that time, Mr. Entwistle was in charge of television programming, while the director general was Mark Thompson, who resigned in September to become the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Mr. Thompson appeared on Friday before a separate closed-door inquiry in London into the cancellation of the “Newsnight” segment last year.

Since the panel’s session with Mr. Entwistle on Oct. 23, the scandal has widened after a “Newsnight” broadcast on Nov. 2 wrongfully implicated a former Conservative Party politician in sexual abuse at a children’s home in North Wales during the Thatcher era.

Events in that imbroglio forced Mr. Entwistle to resign. He appeared with Lord Patten at his side to announce his decision. “I think he found the whole thing an appalling experience, appalling,” Lord Patten said, but added: “I think his departure was in his interest and the BBC’s I’m afraid.”Lord Patten said the second “Newsnight” program showed “appalling editorial judgment. The journalism was — to be polite — shoddy.”

He added: “This was a terribly elementary journalistic failure.”

Mr. Davie said many journalists at the BBC were “aghast at the basic error that was made.”

A BBC inquiry into the second “Newsnight” episode found that journalists failed to give a right of reply to the person they implicated and did not ask his accuser to positively identify him. The report implicated but did not directly identify Alistair McAlpine, the former treasurer of the Conservative Party.

Lord McAlpine has since reached out-of-court libel settlements with the BBC for about $295,000 and with its main commercial rival, ITV, for about $200,000. Last week, the BBC announced that Tony Hall, the head of the Royal Opera House, would take over as the BBC’s director general next year.

Between now and then the British print and broadcast industries face a thicket of inquiries. The BBC has started two internal investigations. One is into the cancellation of the “Newsnight” segment, led by Nick Pollard, a former head of the rival Sky News, and the other is into the culture and practices of the BBC over decades.

The parliamentary panel is also likely to call further witnesses while, on Thursday, much attention in Britain will be focused on the publication of the report by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, who has conducted lengthy inquiries into the phone hacking scandal, with witnesses including Mr. Murdoch and his son James testifying publicly and under oath.

Apart from those inquiries, Scotland Yard is conducting three police investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking and the corruption of public officials. Scores of journalists, lawyers, executives and others have been arrested and questioned.

John F. Burns reported from London and Alan Cowell from Paris.

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