Politics writer Ashley Bebbington reports on the latest changing of the guard at the BBC, as George Entwhistle resigns as Director-General after just 54 days
On Saturday evening George Entwistle resigned from the post of Director General, for his failure to oversee the accurate reporting of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal, which was sparked by allegations against deceased BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. Mr Entwistle was given a severance payment of £450,000 by the BBC, a year’s salary for the Director General despite having been in the post for less than two months. The pay-off has received criticism from deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. He announced his resignation to the press, becoming the shortest serving Director General in the BBC’s history, a 54-day reign that was mired in controversy.
The resignation occurred in the wake of a Newsnight broadcast on November 2nd that wrongfully implicated Conservative peer Lord McAlpine in a case of sexual abuse, a scandal that has claimed the jobs of other senior figures in the BBC. In the broadcast it was alleged that a senior Conservative politician from the Thatcher era was responsible for the abuse of Steven Messham, which occurred in a North Wales children’s home in the 1980s. The broadcast did not name Lord McAlpine, but contained enough information to lead to online speculation that he was the guilty party. Prime Minister David Cameron warned the public not to begin a ‘witch hunt’ against suspected paedophiles, but to report any relevant information to the police. The Government launched a full police inquiry, but McAlpine was found to be innocent after Steven Messham revealed that he had mistakenly identified his abuser as Lord McAlpine when interviewed by the police. The Conservative peer had consistently denied the accusations, calling them ‘wholly false and seriously defamatory’.
Newsnight was also involved in scandal a month earlier when the programme’s editor, Peter Rippon, decided not to broadcast an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against Jimmy Savile. Such allegations against Savile had been brought to the attention of the BBC shortly after his death in November 2011, and George Entwistle was known to have shown a lack of interest in the claims, fuelling suspicion that the BBC covered up Savile’s child abuse. The Parliamentary Select Committee for Culture later accused Mr Entwistle of having a ‘lack of curiosity’ about the Savile case. ITV went on to release an investigation into Savile, which put forward similar allegations. Following the ITV programme, and further allegations against Savile, an inquiry was launched to investigate why the BBC had dropped their broadcast. Savile is thought to have used his position within the BBC to help him abuse up to 300 young people over 40 years.
Tim Davie has been appointed as acting Director General, and will take over Mr Entwistle’s duties until a successor is appointed, which the BBC insist will be within weeks. Since his appointment it has come to light that there is a great deal of ambiguity over who was ultimately responsible for the broadcast of the report on North Wales children’s homes. It is likely that all of the relevant inquiries will reveal further details on the scandals in the coming weeks.