Belfast Telegraph

BBC staff behind 'basic failings' to be carpeted

New chief’s vow as report damns editorial controls

By Ian Burrell

The BBC began disciplinary proceedings against its own staff on Monday night after admitting that “basic journalistic checks were not carried out” by its flagship programme Newsnight, and that “unacceptable failings” in editorial procedures had led to the Tory grandee Lord McAlpine being falsely linked to a paedophile ring.

Downing Street and the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, have pressured the BBC Trust to explain why it had paid £450,000 to George Entwistle to resign on Saturday.

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, acknowledged that the corporation needed to “get a grip”.

“If I don't do that and if we don't restore the huge confidence and trust that people have in the BBC then I'm sure people will tell me to take my cards and clear off,” he told Sky News's Murnaghan programme.

But he added: “I am not going to take my marching orders from Mr Murdoch's newspapers. I think there are big issues which need to be tackled involving the BBC and that's what I want to give my attention to.”

In his first move as the corporation's acting director general, Tim Davie sidelined the two most senior figures in the BBC News division, Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell, and set up a new editorial “clear line of command”. Both executives are understood to have brought in lawyers to oppose the development.

The weekend of blood-letting at the corporation showed little sign of slowing as the BBC on Monday night published summary findings of an internal inquiry into the flawed Newsnight story. The BBC said it was taking “clear and decisive action” to “restore public trust in the BBC's journalism”.

As Mr Davie announced his intention to offer “strong leadership” to the broadcaster, the National Audit Office announced it would be asking the BBC Trust to explain its decision to pay £450,000 to Mr Entwistle.

Mr Davie, who expressed a wish to talk to Lord McAlpine “personally”, promised that individuals identified in the report as being culpable for the editorial failings would be subject to a “disciplinary process” that would be “fair to those individuals”, despite the intense public scrutiny and criticism from prominent Tories and media rivals.

But as those proceedings began on Monday there was a fear of scapegoating among BBC staff.

Several members of the Newsnight team are taking legal advice in addition to the programme's editor Peter Rippon, who has instructed lawyers after being sidelined by the BBC.

In explaining his decision on Monday to move Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell, Mr Davie said he wanted to show he had a “full grip of the situation”.

He said: “I have to be, as director general, very clear on who is running the news operation.” But lawyers acting for Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell have argued that they remain “quite capable” of running BBC News even while investigations into their conduct — and the decision to kill Newsnight's original Jimmy Savile exposé — continue. Both executives hope to return to their jobs.

The full MacQuarrie report will be “used to inform disciplinary proceedings”, the BBC said. The summary report said that Newsnight's editorial management structure “had been seriously weakened” since the decision to move Mr Rippon. “The editorial leadership of the team was under very considerable pressure.”

In the House of Commons, Mr Entwistle's severance payment was the subject of heated criticism. Under his contract, the departing director general was entitled to only six months' salary, but the BBC Trust said the extra payment had been agreed to reflect Mr Entwistle's “consensual resignation” and continuing involvement with the internal inquiries set up over Jimmy Savile's activities.

During an emergency Commons debate, several Conservative MPs called for Lord Patten to step down as BBC Trust chairman, but the Government later made clear it had confidence in Lord Patten.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller said the corporation needed a “period of stability” to see it through the turmoil.

“Lord Patten has a key role in making sure this crisis is now well handled and I support him in now doing that,” she added.

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