THE BBC’s Newsnight programme which wrongly implicated a Tory peer in a child sex abuse scandal failed to complete “basic journalistic checks”, an official report has concluded.
Confusion also arose about who had the ultimate responsibility for “final editorial sign-off” according to the review carried out by the BBC’s Scotland director Ken MacQuarrie into the Newsnight fiasco.
It found the programme’s editorial management structure had been “seriously weakened” as a result of the editor having to step aside over the Jimmy Savile scandal, and the departure of the deputy editor.
The mistakes in the Newsnight report, broadcast on Friday November 2, led to the departure of director-general George Entwistle on Saturday night.
And Iain Overton, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which worked with the BBC on the story also resigned yesterday.
Overton had tweeted hours before the start of the programme a message that read: “If it all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile”.
His message was retweeted 1,574 times and led to a fury of speculation online, wrongly implicating former Treasury Minister Lord McAlpine in the North Wales children’s home scandal.
Problems in the programme stemmed from two different sign-off processes being put in place as a result of continuing inquiries into Savile, yesterday’s report found.
Mr MacQuarrie said there was a “separation between ‘business as usual’ stories and ‘Savile-related’ stories”, with a separate chain of command for anything to do with Savile.
“It was not clear whether this story was regarded as Savile-related or not, or when that decision was made and communicated: a clear decision on this does not appear to have been taken until lunchtime on Friday November 2,” he said. “As a consequence there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility for the Newsnight report, particularly in the days leading up to the day of transmission.”
Mr MacQuarrie said there were also shortcomings in the quality of the journalism. “During the editorial decision-making process, some of the basic journalistic checks were not completed. Specifically, identification was not confirmed by photograph with the first victim. The second victim could not be traced in order to provide up-to-date corroboration.”
Although legal advice was sought, no right of reply was offered to the individual at the centre of the allegation.
The programme featured an interview with Steve Messham, an abuse victim who said a senior political figure of the time had abused him. He later said he had wrongly identified his abuser as Lord McAlpine and apologised.
The MacQuarrie report findings are a top priority for by acting Director-General Tim Davie, who was appointed on Saturday and who is trying to rebuild trust in the Corporation.
It also emerged yesterday that the BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, have stepped aside temporarily.
The troubled Corporation said these departures were not, however, as a result of the Newsnight controversy. Instead, they were in response to the “lack of clarity” surrounding who was in charge while the Pollard Review took place.
This review – led by former Sky news chief Nick Pollard – is looking into an earlier decision to shelve a Newsnight investigation into Savile’s sexual abuse, which sparked claims it covered up child abuse allegations.