The director general of the BBC has stepped down after current affairs program Newsnight incorrectly implicated a senior politician as a child abuser.
In a brief statement outside BBC headquarters on Saturday night, George Entwistle said he decided to do the ‘honourable thing’ and step down.
‘When appointed to the role, with 23 years’ experience as a producer and leader at the BBC, I was confident the trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post, and the right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead,’ he said.
‘However the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader.’
Earlier on Saturday, Entwistle who took up the post of director general on September 17, said the BBC should not have aired the program. He admitted it further damaged trust in a broadcaster already reeling from the fallout over its decision not to air similar allegations against one of its star hosts.
On Friday, BBC apologised for its November 2 Newsnight TV show on alleged sex abuse in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. During the program, victim Steve Messham claimed he had been abused by a senior Conservative Party figure.
The BBC didn’t name the alleged abuser, but online rumours focused on Alistair McAlpine, a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords. On Friday, he issued a fierce denial and threatened to sue.
Messham then said he had been mistaken about his abuser’s identity and apologised to McAlpine, prompting fury over the BBC’s decision to air the report and the suspension of investigative programs at Newsnight.
Before his resignation, Enwistle insisted he was not aware of the program before it was broadcast – saying on hindsight he wished the matter had been referred to him.
But that stand drew incredulity from politicians and media watchers wondering how he could have allowed a second botched handling of a high-profile child sex abuse story so soon after the broadcaster was pitched into crisis over allegations against its late TV host Jimmy Savile.
‘At the end of the day, the director general of the BBC is editor-in-chief,’ said John Whittingdale, chairman of the government’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee. ‘This has done immense damage to the reputation of the BBC.’
The scandal around Savile, who died last year and who is alleged to have sexually abused many young people, put the BBC and its premier investigative program Newsnight on the firing line after it emerged the program had decided to shelve its own report into allegations against Savile.
The UK Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, said: ‘It is a regrettable but the right decision. It is vital that credibility and public trust in the BBC is restored.
‘It is now crucial that the BBC puts the systems in place to ensure it can make first class news and current affairs programs.’
Entwistle, who had held the post for less than two months, has spent virtually the entire time trying to deal with the fallout from the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal.