George Entwistle, the BBC head who succeeded newly installed Times Company CEO Mark Thompson, gave up his job today. “It was the only honorable thing to do,” he said. Entwistle has been having trouble ever since it was revealed that BBC host Jimmy Savile had sexually abused hundreds of children, but things boiled over on November 2, when the celebrated Newsnight program ran a program implicating a senior Tory politican in child sexual abuse at Welsh care homes. While no one was specifically named on-air, it later leaked online that the man in question was Lord McAlpine, a treasury secretary under Margaret Thatcher, who called the allegations “wholly false and seriously defamatory” (and threatened legal action.)
Yesterday, however, the sex abuse victim featured in the Newsnight broadcast recanted, saying that when he’d identified his attacker in a photo he was told it was Lord McAlpine but that upon seeing an actual photograph of the former Tory cabinet secretary, he realized he’d made a mistake. The BBC issued an official apology last night, with Entwistle appearing on Radio 4’s Today program earlier today to attempt some damage control: “We should not have put out a film that was so fundamentally wrong. What happened here is so totally unacceptable. In my view the film should not have gone out.”
The Radio 4 appearance — where Entwistle admitted he’d had no advance briefing of the program — had the opposite effect intended, riling up critics still more and shaking the BBC faithful. One insider told the Guardian that “the Today interview was a train crash, like listening to a dead man walking. It was the haplessness of the interview that made your heart sink.”
Meanwhile, Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, called the whole thing “unacceptable shoddy journalism.” A former culture secretary, David Mellor, was so upset over the whole affair that he issued a scathing statement about his “disillussion[ment] that such a man can rise without trace to be director general. He came across as so out of touch, it made me think Winnie the Pooh would have been more effective.”
Ultimately, the inevitable became clear to Entwistle and the BBC higher ups, resulting in his resignation this afternoon and an official statement:
In the light of the fact that the Director-General is also the Editor-in-Chief and ultimately responsible for all content; and in the light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2nd November; I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of Director-General.
To have been the director general of the BBC even for a short period, and in the most challenging of circumstances, has been a great honour.
“This is undoubtedly one of the saddest evenings of my public life,” Lord Patten said at the time, almost surely referring as much to Entwistle’s departure as to the rather sorry state (at least right now) of the venerable BBC. “It’s a regrettable situation,” agreed Britain’s current culture secretary Maria Miller, “but the right decision.” Entwistle will be replaced by Tim Davie, the BBC’s director of audio and music operations.”