Belfast Telegraph

BBC crisis handled disastrously, Belfast media gathering told

By Victoria O’Hara

The handling of the crisis at the BBC has been “close to catastrophic”, the chairman of an influential Westminster committee has told a major media conference in Northern Ireland.

In the keynote speech to the Society of Editors’ annual conference in Belfast, John Whittingdale warned that the “monumental failures” of the news corporation must result in a major overhaul of the corporation's management structures.

Mr Whittingdale, chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, was highly critical of BBC practices.

“What happened at the BBC, that plainly the checks and safeguards which are necessary, failed at every level, and that therefore there does need in my view to be a complete overhaul of the management structure,” he said.

Mr Whittingdale told delegates that the crucial distinction that separated newspapers and broadcasters from anonymous information available online was reliability.

“The BBC's failure was so serious because the dividing line between gossip on the internet and serious investigative journalism seemed to break down in terms of the programme broadcast on Newsnight,” he said.

As well as the Newsnight report, the MP also criticised the actions of ITV1 presenter Phillip Schofield last week when he handed the Prime Minister a list of alleged paedophiles he had found online.

Steve Hewlett, presenter of the Radio 4 Media Show, said “without question” the BBC was in crisis. “I think it has been quite close to catastrophic because no one got a grip.”

Mr Hewlett added: “Rule one of crisis management is establish the facts and get to the truth, and they just didn’t.

“This is not a failure of the system it is a failure of leadership.”

The three-day conference has been hit by a number of absentees thanks to the continuing storm of controversy at the BBC.

Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of newsgathering and president of the Society of Editors, returned to London. She was appointed acting director of news after the incumbent, Helen Boaden, stood aside while the Pollard review into the dropping of Newsnight's Jimmy Savile investigation is carried out.

During the morning session it emerged Iain Overton, who was due to attend the conference on Tuesday, had resigned. He was editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which collaborated with the BBC on the controversial Newsnight report that wrongly linked a senior Tory to a paedophile ring.

Phil Harding, former controller of editorial policy at the BBC, described the event as like a “parallel universe”.

“I think there is almost two conferences going on,” he said.

“It (the BBC) is clearly a crisis, if you lose your director general you lose the man at the top and it is a serious situation. But the BBC should be able to come through this and rebuild whatever trust it has lost with the audience.”

Panelists during the event included Carla Buzasi, editor in chief of the Huffington Post UK, and Christopher Graham the Information Commissioner.

During a discussion entitled ‘In the public interest... but why won’t they tell us?’, Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said it is now more difficult to access information that should be in the public domain — despite 160 Press officers working at Stormont and journalists’ ability to use the Freedom of Information Act.

“The real truth of the matter is we are in a pretty shutdown society,” he said.

“For information that can be given easily, we actually face delay. Information is actually harder and harder to get hold of.”

However, Andy Trotter, chairman of ACPO communications advisory group and Chief Constable of British Transport Police, argued that agencies are “much more open than ever before”.

But he added that in his field of work there would be no long “off-the-record” briefings. “It’s on the record from a named source. Everything will be upfront,” he said.

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