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BBC Engulfed In Second Crisis Within Weeks


Let's look now at the impact of some shocking revelations on the other side of the Atlantic. Britain's media has had a pretty rough year. First, the phone-hacking scandal that led to the closure of Rupert Murdoch's popular tabloid News of the World. Now the esteemed BBC is in trouble. Over the weekend, the head of the BBC resigned, plunging the world's largest public broadcaster into its second crisis within weeks. NPR's Philip Reeves has more.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Listen to this conversation. It's between a journalist and his editor - his editor-in-chief, actually. At issue is a big mistake that someone's made.


GEORGE ENTWISTLE: This tweet, I am afraid, was not brought to my attention. So I found out about this film after it had gone out. Now, to find out what happened...

JOHN HUMPHRYS: So, when did you find out? When did you find out?

ENTWISTLE: I found out about the film the following day.

HUMPHRYS: The following day? You didn't see it that night when it was broadcast?

ENTWISTLE: No, I was out.

REEVES: You'd think the editor-in-chief was the one doing the bawling-out, right? Isn't that what usually happens when someone's messed up? It's the other way round. The man asking the tough questions is John Humphrys, an anchor on the BBC's radio program, "Today." The guy taking the heat is George Entwistle, who was, when this exchange took place, the BBC's director-general. It gets worse.


ENTWISTLE: The second this was brought to my attention last night, I immediately started...

HUMPHRYS: Brought to your attention? Do you not read papers? Do you not look, do you not listen to the output?

ENTWISTLE: I saw this break on the Web, John. That's where I saw this. It's not a question of it being in the papers. But the second I saw it, I started to make the inquiries.

HUMPHRYS: Did you see the Guardian yesterday morning?

REEVES: That interview, broadcast by the BBC in Britain this weekend, sealed Entwistle's fate. Entwistle resigned on Saturday. He'd been on the job just eight weeks. Much of his time as director-general was spent struggling to contain a scandal over allegations that a now-dead BBC television presenter, Jimmy Savile, was a serial child sex abuser. But the trigger for Entwistle's departure was an editorial blunder. It happened on the BBC's prestigious current affairs TV show, "Newsnight," and became the show's lead story.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A new crisis for "Newsnight." Tonight, this program apologizes. A key allegation in a report about child abuse was wrong. The abuse victim says he was mistaken.

REEVES: That baseless accusation of child abuse was leveled at Alistair McAlpine. McAlpine used to be a senior conservative party politician and close adviser to Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He wasn't identified by "Newsnight," but McAlpine's name came out on the Internet.

His accuser said the abuse happened while he was at a children's home in the 1970s and '80s. He was not shown McAlpine's picture until after the allegations aired. When he saw one afterwards, he admitted his mistake and apologized. "Newsnight" did not put the allegations to McAlpine himself before airing them.

Historically, the BBC enjoys a reputation for top-quality journalism, earning a generally high degree of trust from its huge audience at home and abroad. It's now scrambling to limit the damage to that reputation. Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC's governing body, the BBC Trust, spent his Sunday touring TV studios. He told the BBC's "Andrew Marr Show" the erroneous "Newsnight" film was actually approved at a senior level.


CHRIS PATTEN: Apparently, decisions about the program went up through every damned layer of BBC management, bureaucracy, legal checks, and still emerged.

REEVES: Patten says there's a need for some serious editorial reforms.


PATTEN: If you're saying: Does the BBC need a thorough structural radical overhaul, then absolutely it does.

REEVES: This crisis is entwined with the earlier scandal over Jimmy Savile. The BBC is already under fire over a decision to drop an investigation - again by "Newsnight" - into Savile's alleged widespread child abuse. That's now the subject of multiple investigations. The BBC's mostly paid for by the British taxpayer. It enjoys a huge chunk of Britain's media market. Commercial rivals want the BBC cut down to size. They often gleefully highlight the BBC's blunders. This latest crisis is not a threat to the BBC's survival, but it has raised big questions about journalistic standards in the modern age. Philip Reeves, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Phlip Reeves

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