BBC director of news Helen Boaden and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, were suspended… (Andy Rain / European Pressphoto…)
LONDON — They're words that the BBC isn't accustomed to hearing about itself: "shoddy journalism" on one of its premier investigative programs, "unacceptable mistakes" by senior staff, a director general with "the leadership qualities of Winnie the Pooh."
The august British broadcaster, one of the world's biggest media brands, is battling mounting criticism and outright ridicule as it scrambles to contain its worst crisis in years. Public faith in "the Beeb" has plunged as the result of one program on an alleged child molester that it didn't air — and one that, unfortunately, it did, falsely implicating a former politician.
The turmoil intensified Monday with the announcement that two senior editors were "stepping aside" as the BBC tries to get to the bottom of what went wrong. The suspensions came after a weekend in which the head of the corporation resigned after less than eight weeks on the job and the chairman of the BBC Trust called for a radical overhaul.
The new acting director general, Tim Davie, said Monday that he would immediately streamline the chain of command within the BBC's news division to create clear lines of responsibility. He added that some employees would probably face disciplinary action but did not identify them.
"The BBC is all about trust," Davie said. "If we haven't got that, we haven't got anything."
But even as he spoke, more outrage erupted, this time over the $720,000 severance payment awarded Davie's short-lived predecessor, George Entwistle. The office of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said the amount, the equivalent of a year's salary, was hard to justify; another Conservative politician branded it a "reward for failure."
It's hard to overstate just how enormous a role the BBC plays in British public life through its widely admired news reporting and its portfolio of dramas, documentaries and other offerings on television and radio. Even government officials who grumble about a perceived liberal bias acknowledge that the organization is a major conduit throughout the world of British "soft power."
Analysts say that much of the heavy criticism now engulfing the organization is opportunistic, particularly from politicians who resent its influence and from Britain's tabloids, which have had their turn at the whipping post thanks to a phone-hacking scandal. The Sun on Sunday blared "Bye Bye Chump," a play on the broadcaster's initials, on its front cover, alongside a photo of Entwistle.
"It's being deliberately exaggerated by the BBC's traditional enemies and critics," said Steven Barnett, a journalism professor at the University of Westminster. "That's not to say it's not serious, and I think it is a crisis in the normal sense of the word. But the sky is not about to fall in, nor is the world about to end."
The crisis began with the revelation that the BBC had abruptly shelved an investigation last year by its "Newsnight" program into allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile, the popular host of a BBC children's show. The corporation was preparing a lavish tribute to Savile at the time that the "Newsnight" episode was pulled, though the editor who made the decision denies any link.
The accusations against Savile have since avalanched, with police now investigating hundreds of potential cases of molestation. Critics have even speculated about the existence of a pedophile ring within the BBC, which has launched two separate independent inquiries into the scandal.
To make matters worse, "Newsnight" then broadcast an episode Nov. 2 on allegations of sex abuse at a children's home in Wales, which implicated a former Conservative Party grandee. But "Newsnight" apparently did not try to contact the man for a response to the allegations. He robustly denied them, and his accuser subsequently admitted identifying the wrong person. The BBC was forced to issue an abject apology.
Entwistle insisted he knew nothing about the program until after it appeared. But because the director general also serves as the broadcaster's nominal editor in chief, he took responsibility and stepped down Saturday from his post overseeing a staff of more than 20,000.
Former Cabinet minister David Mellor said Entwistle was not up to dealing with the twin scandals and the harsh scrutiny they invited. "George, bless his heart, had the leadership qualities of Winnie the Pooh when it came to the outside world."
Davie said the BBC's multilayered management structure "led to some fuzzy decision-making" over the flawed "Newsnight" program, on top of the fundamental journalistic errors it contained. His shake-up of the news operation is designed to address that problem.
"This is about establishing clear lines of responsibility in our journalism and delivering output we trust, and I think I'm in a good position to do that," Davie told Sky News.