An interview with Today Programme presenter John Humphrys on Saturday morning may have sealed the fate of BBC director general George Entwistle – who announced his resignation on the steps of New Broadcasting House at 9.15pm on Saturday night.
HIs departure followed the Newsnight broadcast of 2 November which alleged that a senior Tory from the Thatcher era had been involved in child abuse at a North Wales children's home in the 1970s. Last week it emerged that the BBC source was mistaken, but by then the damage was done as internet speculation had wrongly identified the individual as Lord McAlpine.
- December 11, 2017
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The BBC is now braced for a dafamation action from McAlpine
In his interview with Humphrys, Entwistle said he knew nothing in advance about the Newsnight broadcast – even though on the afternoon of 2 November a Tweet by Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor Iain Overton led to massive speculation on Twitter and extensive media coverage before the programme was broadcast. In it he said: "'If all goes well we've got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile."
Here is the key exchange from Saturday morning's Today interview:
Humphrys asked: "When did you know that this film was being broadcast and when was it drawn to your attention that it was going to make extraordinarily serious allegations about a man whose identity would inevitably be uncovered – wrongly, as we now know?
George Entwistle: "The film was not drawn to my attention before transmission."
JH: "At all? Nobody said anything to you at all?"
GE: "No John, but I need to explain that there are an awful lot of pieces of journalism going on around the BBC which do not get referred to the editor-in-chief. Not everything gets to the editor-in-chief.
"The key is, is it referred sufficiently far up the chain of command and in this case I think the right referrals were made…"
JH: "But you must have known what happened, a tweet was put out 24 hours before, 12 hours before, telling the world that something was going to happen on Newsnight that night that would reveal extraordinary things about child abuse and that would involve a senior Tory figure from the Thatcher years. You didn't see that tweet?"
GE: "I didn't see that tweet John, I now understand …"
JH: "You didn't see that tweet? Why not?"
GE: "I check Twitter at the end of the day sometimes – or I don't."
JH: "You have a staff, but you have an enormous staff of people who are reporting into you on all sorts of things – they didn't see this tweet that was going to set the world on fire?"
GE: "John, this tweet I'm afraid was not brought to my attention so I found out about this film after it had gone out."
JH: "Can I just be absolutely clear? Nobody said to you, or to anybody on your staff who would then report it to you at any time, 'look we've got this Newsnight film going out – Newsnight should already light a few bulbs with you – but we've got this film going out on Newsnight that is going to make massively serious allegations about a senior, a former senior political …' Nobody even mentioned it in the context that we understand, nobody even mentioned it?"
JH: "Isn't that extraordinary?"
GE: "In the light of what's happened here, I wish it had been but it wasn't. I run the BBC on the basis that the right people are put in the right positions to make the right decisions."
JH: "So when did you find out about it?"
GE: "I heard about it the following day."
JH: "The following day? You didn't see it that night when it was broadcast?"
GE: "No, I was out."
BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten said on Sunday night: "At the heart of the BBC is its role as a trusted global news organisation and as the editor-in-chief of that organisation George as very honourably offered us his resgnation because of the unacceptable mistakes and the unacceptable shoddy journalism that has caused so much controversy."
It has now emerged that the decision to broadcast the report rested with BBC director of Northern Ireland Peter Johnston, a former marketing professional for Shell who is said to have little journalistic experience.
BBC head of news Helen Boaden and Entwistle had both removed themselves from decision-making over Jimmy Savile-related stories pending the outcome of inquiries over the Newsnight's failure to broadcast evidence of the late-DJ's history of sexual abuse last December. Newsnight editor Peter Rippon "stepped aside" from involvement in the programme on 22 October.