LONDON // Britain’s BBC must undergo a radical overhaul in the wake of “shoddy” journalism which led to the resignation of its chief or its future will be in doubt, the head of the state-funded broadcaster’s governing body said yesterday.
Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, said that opponents of the BBC, especially Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, would take advantage of the turmoil and continue the pressure on its long-term rival.
“If you’re saying, does the BBC need a thorough structural radical overhaul, then absolutely it does and that is what we will have to do,” Mr Patten, a one-time senior figure in prime minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party and the last British governor of Hong Kong, told BBC television.
The BBC director general, George Entwistle, resigned on Saturday only two months into the job, after the corporation’s flagship news programme aired mistaken allegations of child sex abuse against a former leading politician.
Already under pressure after revelations that a long-time star presenter had been a paedophile, Mr Entwistle quit saying the unacceptable standards of the Newsnight report had damaged the public’s confidence in the 90-year-old BBC.
“As the director general of the BBC, I am ultimately responsible for all content as the editor-in-chief, and I have therefore decided that the honourable thing for me to do is to step down,” he said.
Mr Patten joined critics who said a complex hierarchical management structure at the BBC was partly to blame. One of the BBC’s most prominent journalists Jeremy Paxman, a Newsnight presenter, said that in recent years, management had become bloated while cash was cut from programme budgets.
Mr Patten, in charge of finding a successor to sort out the turmoil, said that changes needed to be made after describing the Newsnight journalism as “shoddy”.
“One of the jokes I made, and actually it wasn’t all that funny, when I came to the BBC ... was that there were more senior leaders in the BBC than there were in the Chinese communist party,” Mr Patten said.
Mr Entwistle succeeded Mark Thompson as director only in September and immediately faced one of the biggest crises in the history of the BBC, which is funded by a licence fee paid by TV viewers. Mr Thompson is set to take over as chief executive of The New York Times.
This was the revelation by rival broadcaster ITV that the late Jimmy Savile, one of the most recognisable personalities on British television for three decades, had sexually abused young girls, some on BBC premises.
Suggestions then surfaced of a paedophile ring inside the BBC at the time and a cover-up. Police have launched an inquiry and detectives said they had arrested their third suspect yesterday, a man in his seventies from Cambridgeshire in central England.
Mr Entwistle was condemned for the BBC’s slow response to the Savile furore and then lambasted after it emerged that Newsnight had axed a planned expose into Savile shortly after his death and that the broadcaster had gone ahead with tributes instead.
His appearance before a parliamentary committee provoked mockery, with one legislator saying that he had shown a “lamentable lack of knowledge” of what was going on at his own organisation.
On Friday, the BBC apologised for the mistaken allegation that an ex-politician, later identified on the internet as the former Conservatve Party treasurer Lord McAlpine, had abused children. Mr Entwistle was forced to admit on BBC radio that he had not been told about the Newsnight report before it was broadcast nor known – or asked – who the alleged abuser was until the name appeared in social media.
While respected around the world, the BBC is resented by its commercial rivals, who argue the licence fee gives it an unfair advantage and distorts the market. Mr Murdoch’s Sun tabloid gleefully reported Mr Entwistle’s departure and Mr Patten said that News Corp is happy to deflect attention after a phone-hacking scandal put the newspaper industry under painful, intense scrutiny.
“You’ve only got to watch television in America or France or Italy to know how good the BBC is. The basis for the licence fee, the basis for the BBC’s position in this country, is the trust that people have in it,” Mr Patten said