Editorial: Long road for BBC to rebuild reputation

Last updated 05:00 13/11/2012

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OPINION: The BBC is a British taonga - as emblematic of Britain as David Beckham, Big Ben and the royal family.

Internationally, no news organisation is held in higher regard. If the BBC reports it, it must be true. The broadcaster's reputation for accuracy is as famous as the clipped vowels of its presenters once were. Which makes the blunders which led to the resignation on Sunday of BBC director-general George Entwistle all the more baffling.

First, shortly before airing a tribute to the late Top of the Pops presenter Jimmy Savile, the corporation, for reasons that have yet to be adequately explained, pulled a programme exploring allegations that he sexually abused youngsters.

Then, even more bafflingly, it aired allegations that a former Tory politician had abused children at a North Wales children's home in the 1970s without bothering to put the charges to the politician or to cross-check its facts. Forget about gold-standard journalism. That is a baser metal.

Newsnight, the Beeb's nightly current affairs show, did not identify the politician, but it did not take the blogosphere long to put two and two together and arrive at four. Within hours reporters were staking out the Italian home of former Conservative Party treasurer Lord (Alistair) McAlpine.

The trouble is Lord McAlpine did not sexually abuse children at the home, and his accuser withdrew the allegation once he saw a photograph of him.

Mr Entwhistle who did not know of the Newsnight investigation before the show went to air, has done the only thing possible. He has resigned.

He might not have been told of the programme's intent, but he should have been. The corporation's failure to do the basic checks every cadet reporter is taught to carry out has exposed it to potential damages of millions of dollars. Worse, it has damaged the reputation of an elderly man and an institution whose name is, or once was, a watchword for impartiality and probity.

As the head of an organisation that employs 23,000 people, Mr Entwhistle could not be expected to review every decision or vet every programme before it went to air, but all news operations have processes by which important decisions are referred upwards.

In this case the referrals should not have stopped till they reached the very top. Instead, not only was Mr Entwhistle not told of the show, he did not watch it and did not learn that the allegation might be incorrect till long after hundreds of thousands of Guardian readers had read it in their morning newspaper. He did not read the paper that morning.

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However, the fault is not his alone. The allegation was discussed internally and vetted by the BBC's lawyers before being aired. Clearly, the corporation needs legal advisers acquainted with Twitter and the internet.

The BBC will recover from the financial loss. Rebuilding its reputation will take longer.

The affair is a reminder to all those in positions of authority that trust is hard won and easily lost. There are some responsibilities that should never be delegated.

- The Dominion Post

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