BBC in Crisis: A Media Giant Struggles to Regain Public Trust


You know things are bad when the BBC is covering itself under the banner, “Crisis at the BBC.” The British Broadcasting Corp. has fallen from its venerable pedestal, with its latest embarrassment triggering the resignation of senior executives, who are taking the fall for the corporation’s newsgathering operation failing to maintain the ethical and journalistic standards at the heart of its brand promise.

BBC director-general George Entwistle resigned on Saturday, after only 55 days in the role, holding himself responsible for “unacceptable journalistic standards” on the BBC’s flagship current-affairs program, Newsnight, after it failed to verify an accusation it aired against Lord McAlpine, a former Conservative Party treasurer, of child sex abuse in Wales. The BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, have also stepped down.

No wonder Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, is calling the network a “ghastly mess.”[more]

Even though he approved a controversial $450,000 pay-out to the out-of-touch Entwhistle, who rose from running Newsnight to running the entire BBC, Patten is calling for a complete overhaul of the scandal-ridden organization, blaming “a siloed and bureaucratic culture (that) had led managers to shirk responsibility,” resulting in “unacceptable shoddy journalism.”

As the former governor of Hong Kong, Patten knows a thing or two about dealing with the press. “I think he felt he should take responsibility for the awful journalism which disfigured that Newsnight program,” he stated about Entwistle. “One of the ironies is that he was a brilliantly successful editor of Newsnight himself for some time.”

It’s just the latest black eye for the BBC, which is fighting to restore trust in the public (not to mention its $6 billion annual budget. The ethics and journalism crisis is the worst its 90-year-old history as a dominant player in not just European, but global media. Referred to by Britons as “Auntie” or “the Beeb,” the broadcaster has weathered previous scandals including controversy over high pay for executives and talent and claims of age and sex bias in casting — but none so bad as this.

Claims challenging its journalistic integrity caused the then-chairman and director-general’s resignations in 2004 over reports that the British government intentionally “sexed up” a dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (later discredited). The current charges are of similar import, and hit the public radar when rival broadcaster ITV ran a documentary last month accusing the late Jimmy Savile, once host of BBC’s “Top of the Pops” and “Jim’ll Fix It” of sexually abusing hundreds of young people in the 1960s and 1970s. ITV is planning a follow-up report, while BBC’s Panorama program covered Newsnight’s decision to squash its planned look at the Savile sex abuse claims.

While Newsnight journalists were preparing their own exposé, it was shelved by management and replaced by a ‘bungled’ story about sex abuse at a children’s home in Wales dating to the 1970s and 1980s, and wrongly implicating former Conservative Party politician, Alistair McAlpine.

At the time, Entwistle, in charge of all the BBC’s television production and jockeying to succeed Mark Thompson, who stepped down in September, said he was not informed beforehand of the Newsnight investigation or the reasons for its cancellation.

Thompson also denied any knowledge, as he got ready to assume his new post as president and CEO of The New York Times Co. on Monday. Thompson stated that the BBC scandal “will not in any way affect my job.” As much as he said he was “saddened” by events, he added that “I believe the BBC is the world’s greatest broadcaster, and I have got no doubt that it will once again regain the public’s trust both in the UK and around the world.” 

Thompson led the BBC from 2004-2012, and the New York Times board still feels that experience makes him the “ideal candidate” for the position, even as there is dissension in the newsroom. Columnist Joe Nocera, for one, believes Thompson was “willfully ignorant” about the Savile scandal. His boss, NYT Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, is standing by his statement that Thompson is “a gifted executive with strong credentials whose leadership at the BBC helped it to extend its trusted brand identity into new digital products and services.”

The New York Times‘ feisty public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has called on her colleagues to not pull any punches in covering Thompson, and today blogged about the arrival of Thompson (with a BBC news crew covering) “as the BBC’s implosion is felt in New York.”

The thankless yet critical task of leading the BBC now falls, for the moment, to Tim Davie, the director of BBC Audio and Music who has been appointed acting BBC director-general. He is charged with keeping the rebuilding trust — until the actual BBC Trust names a successor for Entwistle. News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, is relieved (if not downright gleeful) that it’s not only his British media brands that are on the hot seat these days.

Any UK readers — or anyone following the BBC crisis — care to weigh in on the extent of the brand damage and what the BBC can or should do to repair the erosion in public trust?