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'BBC' chief battles to save his job

Sunday, 11 November 2012 - 12:15pm IST | Place: London | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

George Entwistle was described by one politician as 'in very serious trouble' even as serious concerns were raised about how the BBC dealt with the man who made the claim that he had been abused by a 'senior public figure'.

The BBC'S director-general was fighting to stay in his job on Saturday after admitting he knew nothing in advance of the Newsnight programme's smearing of an innocent politician as a child-abuser — nor of the story unravelling.

George Entwistle was described by one politician as "in very serious trouble" even as the BBC suffered a day of humiliation, and serious concerns were raised about not just its journalism but how it dealt with the man who made the claim that he had been abused by a "senior public figure".

The investigation started an internet frenzy that led to Lord McAlpine, the former Conservative treasurer, being falsely identified as a paedophile. In a series of developments:

-- Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, declined to express confidence in the director-general;

-- Jeremy Paxman, the main Newsnight presenter and one of the BBC's biggest stars, was said to be considering his future, and Jonathan Dimbleby, the veteran presenter, said the whole crisis was a "disaster which should have been prevented";

-- It emerged that it took the BBC 12 hours to apologise on Friday for its error even though Steve Messham, the man who mistakenly believed Lord McAlpine was his abuser, phoned the corporation to say he had made an error.

Entwistle is reeling from the fallout of the botched Newsnight investigation, which he said yesterday should never have been broadcast. He was already under pressure after the failure to investigate Jimmy Savile's child abuse, some of it on BBC premises, and the decision to run tributes to him.

Questioned by presenter John Humphrys on the Today radio programme, he disclosed the full extent of his ignorance of the broadcast and said that he had not read any papers last Friday morning - which disclosed that Lord McAlpine was innocent - because he was delivering a speech.

Asked by Humphrys: "You didn't know that that actually happened?" Entwistle replied: "No, I'm afraid I didn't." His future was questioned by MPs, including Rob Wilson, the Tory backbencher, who said: "The management structure, seemingly from top to bottom, is dysfunctional, and his position as editor-in-chief has collapsed."

One Cabinet minister said he "would not bet my house" on the director-general surviving, while another told The Sunday Telegraph: "He has not done himself any favours. I would not be at all surprised if he fails to weather the storm."

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee said: "This represents a failure of management at every level, and this goes right to the top and it includes the director-general. The director-general is the editor-in-chief of the BBC. He has to take responsibility."

On Saturday night, a spokesman for Lord Patten, the man who appointed Entwistle last summer, refused to offer any vote of confidence in him. Senior BBC figures added to the pressure. Dimbleby said: "We are told that this went up through some kind of chain. It seemed to me that, at best, the chain was very, very frail."

A source close to Paxman said he had thought of quitting after the Savile fiasco, and added: "After 20 years and at 62, he must now be considering his future." If he were to quit, the show itself would struggle to survive.

Entwistle has stopped all Newsnight investigations and any dealings with The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which prepared the Newsnight report on child abuse in north Wales. The not-for-profit body is funded by David and Elaine Potter, who made their fortune with the Psion technology company and have donated to Labour.

On Saturday, it apologised for "failings" but did not suspend anyone involved. The crisis follows the Savile fiasco and criticism earlier this year by Jack Straw, the former home secretary, of a Panorama documentary about a troubled estate in his constituency, which he called "poor quality journalism".

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