BBC chief quits after saying TV report was wrong

LONDON — George Entwistle, the director general of the BBC, resigned on Saturday night over a TV program the network had aired that wrongly implicated a British politician in a child sex-abuse scandal.

In a brief statement outside BBC headquarters, Entwistle said he decided to do the “honorable thing” and step down after just eight weeks in the job.

“When appointed to the role, with 23 years’ experience as a producer and leader at the BBC, I was confident the trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post, and the right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead. However the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader,” he said.

Entwistle assumed the mantle as head of the BBC just two months ago from Mark Thompson, who was appointed chief executive of The New York Times Co. in August and is due to take up the post next month.

Earlier Saturday, Entwistle had said the BBC should not have aired the piece and admitted it further damaged trust in a broadcaster already reeling from the fallout over its decision not to air similar allegations against one of its late star hosts.

Enwistle’s remarks and resignation came a day after the BBC apologized for its Nov. 2 “Newsnight” TV show on alleged sex abuse in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. During the program, victim Steve Messham claimed he had been abused by a senior Conservative Party figure.

The BBC didn’t name the alleged abuser, but online rumors focused on Alistair McAlpine, a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords. On Friday, he issued a fierce denial and threatened to sue.

Messham then said he had been mistaken about his abuser’s identity and apologized to McAlpine, prompting fury over the BBC’s decision to air the report, the suspension of investigative programs at “Newsnight” and mounting questions over Entwistle’s leadership.

Before his resignation Enwistle insisted he was not aware of the program before it was broadcast — saying in hindsight he wished the matter had been referred to him.

But that stand drew incredulity from politicians and media watchers wondering how he could have allowed a second botched handling of a high-profile child sex-abuse story so soon after the broadcaster was pitched into crisis over allegations against its late TV host Jimmy Savile.

“At the end of the day, the director general of the BBC is editor-in-chief,” said John Whittingdale, chairman of the government’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee. “This has done immense damage to the reputation of the BBC.”

The scandal around Savile, who died last year and who is alleged to have sexually abused many young people, put the BBC and its premier investigative program “Newsnight” on the firing line after it emerged the program had decided to shelve its own report into allegations against Savile.

On Saturday night, Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, stood beside Enwistle as he resigned and praised him.

It is “one of the saddest evenings of my public life,” said Patten. “At the heart of the BBC is its role as a trusted global news organization.”

He said Enwistle “has very honorably offered us his resignation because of the unacceptable mistakes — the unacceptable shoddy journalism — which has caused us so much controversy. He has behaved as editor with huge honor and courage and would that the rest of the world always behaved the same,” Patten said.

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