Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

I won't quit, insists local chief caught up in furore

Surprise twist to Newsnight shambles as NI boss is revealed as key part of decision-making hierarchy

Peter Johnston, Director of BBC Northern Ireland
Peter Johnston, Director of BBC Northern Ireland

The boss of BBC Northern Ireland is insisting he won’t resign over his role in a Newsnight report which falsely accused a top Tory of being a child abuser.

Peter Johnston was defiantly clinging to his £145,000-a-year job on Monday night amid a growing storm over the programme’s botched investigation.

He was involved in signing the item off after other senior management were not available. Director General George Entwistle has already quit after Newsnight wrongly implicated ex-Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine in a Wales children’s home scandal.

The pressure on the BBC NI chief followed a day which saw two senior news executives stand aside over a shelved probe into Jimmy Savile. Outside BBC Belfast HQ on Monday night, Mr Johnston said he was not leaving. Asked if he was considering his position he said: “No, I’m not.”

His defiance came despite a report by BBC Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie into Newsnight that found “basic journalistic checks” weren’t carried out.

It found “ambiguity” over who was taking ultimate editorial responsibility for the programme.

It said the programme's editorial management structure was “seriously weakened” as a result of the editor stepping aside over Savile, and the departure of the deputy editor.

Mr Johnston was reportedly left to oversee the decision to air the report because other senior people on the BBC’s management board were not available.

Originally from Ballymena, Mr Johnston (45) has been director of BBC NI for the last six years. He said: “I can confirm I was involved in decisions of November 2. I couldn’t comment earlier because we were awaiting the BBC publishing the results of Ken MacQuarrie’s findings.

“That’s now happened and the next stage of the process will seek to establish the roles and responsibilities. I have great faith in BBC journalism and that is the most important thing to concentrate on in these difficult times.”

Asked about his involvement he said: “I can’t comment further. As you understand these things have to go through a proper process fair to everyone, and is the right thing to do. I’m very hopeful things will be expedited very quickly. Some information has been published tonight.”

Mr MacQuarrie's report said there was a “separation between ‘business as usual' stories and ‘Savile-related' stories”, with different chains of command.

He said: “It was not clear whether this story was regarded as Savile-related or not, nor when that decision was made and communicated: a clear decision on this does not appear to have been taken until lunchtime on Friday November 2.

“As a consequence there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility for the Newsnight report, particularly in the days leading up to transmission.”

In a statement on Monday night, BBC NI said: “We can confirm that Peter Johnston was involved in decisions about the BBC Newsnight report on November 2, 2012.

“The sequencing of events around this report has been reviewed by Ken MacQuarrie and the BBC has now published a summary of findings and actions.

“The next stage of this process is now under way. It will, amongst other things, seek to clarify decision-making roles and responsibilities in relation to the Newsnight report. We expect that these investigations will be concluded as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we will not be making any further comment.”

Despite his defiant stance, Tory MP Philip Davies of the influential Culture, Media and Sport committee, said: “It is very difficult to see how he is going to retain his job, to be perfectly honest.

“We all make mistakes, and I don’t take the view that the moment someone makes a mistake they have got to lose their job. This was such a serious job, and he was in such a position of responsibility, it makes you wonder how he can carry on in a senior management role when he doesn’t seem to have asked programme-makers the right questions.”

But former Labour Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw said people should wait for the full findings.

“It is clear that something went dreadfully wrong in the individual decision-making over this film, and the BBC have promised that action will be taken against those responsible,” he said.

Newsnight had broadcast an interview with Steve Messham, who claimed a leading Thatcher-era Conservative abused him.

Although the programme did not name the politician, speculation on the internet wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine.

Mr Messham later said it was a case of mistaken identity, claiming police had shown him a picture of his abuser but incorrectly told him the man was Lord McAlpine.

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