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Two more BBC figures step aside

  • Article by: ALAN COWELL and JOHN F. BURNS New York Times
  • November 12, 2012 - 9:05 PM

LONDON - The BBC struggled Monday to contain a spreading crisis over its reporting of a decades-old sexual abuse scandal as two senior executives withdrew temporarily from their jobs following the resignation of the corporation's director-general, a move that encapsulated the worst setback to the public broadcaster's status, prestige and self-confidence for years.

The BBC's website said news director Helen Boaden and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, had "stepped aside," the latest moves since a flagship current affairs program, "Newsnight," wrongly implicated a former politician in accusations of sexual abuse at a children's home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

The BBC management said that neither Boaden nor Mitchell "had anything at all" to do with the failed investigation. But, it said, it "believes there is a lack of clarity in the lines of command and control in BBC News" because of an inquiry into a separate "Newsnight" debacle -- the cancellation of a program a year ago into allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a longtime BBC television host who died last year at age 84.

The BBC said the two executives would stand down until the end of that investigation.

But furor continued to build on several fronts.

On Monday, British lawmakers, politicians and newspapers focused on a decision by the BBC Trust to authorize a settlement payment to former director-general George Entwistle, equivalent to one year's salary of around $750,000. The BBC justified the payment -- double its contractual obligation of six months' pay -- by saying Entwistle would continue to help the various inquiries into the scandals.

Prime Minister David Cameron's office challenged the payment as "hard to justify" but sent a signal opposing calls for the chairman of the supervisory BBC Trust, Chris Patten, to step down.

"The important thing is for Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties," Cameron's office said.

Accounts published in Britain's newspapers, citing current and former BBC staff members, said the "Newsnight" team had worked with an independent group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at the City University in London, in preparing the Nov. 2 report that wrongly implicated McAlpine.

The privately financed bureau was founded in 2009 to investigate controversial issues and, in its own words, to provide a "gold standard" for reporting.

In a statement, the bureau's board of trustees said that it was "appalled by what appears to be a breach" of standards and that "remedial action will be taken against those responsible."

The bureau's work for the report was led by former BBC reporter Angus Stickler, who was loaned to "Newsnight" and worked jointly under a BBC producer and the bureau's own managing editor, Iain Overton, a former BBC producer. Overton resigned Monday.

The latest debacle has compounded the problems facing the network since accusations exploded last month against Savile.

Critics have accused the BBC of covering up the abuse by canceling a "Newsnight" report on the accusations against him in December.

Entwistle has said that he was not informed beforehand of the nature of the "Newsnight" investigation or the reasons for its cancellation.

At that time, Entwistle was in charge of all the BBC's television productions.

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