The BBC was mired in a deepening crisis last night after its director general fell on his sword amid the escalating furore over the corporation’s handling of investigations into child sex abuse.
George Entwistle resigned after 54 days in the job over the “unacceptable” Newsnight broadcast which wrongly implicated a senior former Conservative in a historic abuse scandal.
Mr Entwistle said he had decided to do the “honourable thing” and step down from his post as he announced his departure.
The 50-year-old’s tenure as director general – the shortest in BBC history – was dogged by controversy from the start.
Mr Entwistle was accused of being slow to react to the Jimmy Savile scandal, which blew up days after he took up the post.
He had been in charge of the corporation’s TV output as director of vision at the time Newsnight’s proposed report into abuse by the veteran BBC TV presenter and DJ was dropped late last year.
The decision to axe the programme led to allegations of a cover-up and shook public trust in the corporation.
But it was a Newsnight broadcast on November 2 that was the catalyst for his downfall.
The programme wrongly implicated – although did not name – former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine in allegations of sex abuse at a children’s home in Wrexham, north Wales, in the 1970s and 1980s.
It reported claims by victim Steve Messham that he had been abused by a senior Conservative from the Thatcher era.
The broadcast led to Lord McAlpine’s name being widely circulated online as viewers wrongly speculated that he was the man in question.
Mr Messham has now admitted he was mistaken in identifying the 70-year-old peer after seeing a photograph of him. Both he and the BBC have issued apologies.
Lord McAlpine raised the prospect of legal action on Friday as he made a vehement public denial of the “wholly false and seriously defamatory” claims against him.
In a bruising interview with Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys on Saturday morning, Mr Entwistle claimed he had been unaware that Newsnight was going to broadcast the north Wales report.
He said: “I found out about this film after it had gone out. In the light of what has happened here I wish this was referred to me, but it wasn’t. I found out about the film the following day.”
An incredulous Mr Humphrys demanded: “So there is no natural curiosity, you wait for somebody to come along to you and say: ‘Excuse me director general, but this is happening and you may be interested’?
“You don’t look for yourself, you don’t do what everybody else in the country does, read newspapers, listen to everything that’s going on and say ‘What’s happening here?’”
In a brief statement announcing his resignation that night, Mr Entwistle said: “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.
“However the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude the BBC should appoint a new leader.”
Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust said he had paid the price for the “unacceptable shoddy journalism” on Newsnight.
“He has behaved as editor with huge honour and courage and would that the rest of the world always behaved the same,” he said.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller said Mr Entwistle had made the right decision in stepping down.
“It is vital that credibility and public trust in this important national institution is restored,” she said.