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Crisis-hit BBC seeks new leader to restore trust

November 15, 2012

In this file picture taken on November 12, 2012 BBC employees arrive for work at the organisation's New Broadcasting House in central London. The BBC marked the 90th anniversary of its first ever transmission on November 14, 2012 beset by doubts about its future after scandals surrounding its reporting of child sex abuse allegations. - AFP File Photo

LONDON: The BBC has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent weeks, its reputation for trustworthiness coming under intense scrutiny and its new director-general forced to quit just 54 days into the job.

So it was hardly surprising that this week's 90th birthday celebrations for the world's largest broadcaster were muted.

Media analysts and the BBC's own frustrated journalists say it needs to quickly restore trust in its news output and show that someone has taken control of the situation before permanent damage is done.

“The BBC has looked out of control. It hasn't looked as if anyone is running it,” Steve Hewlett, a freelance media commentator who presents a show about the industry on BBC radio, told AFP.

Already under fire for the decision not to broadcast sex abuse allegations against one of its highest-profile stars, the late Jimmy Saville, the BBC went on to wrongly implicate a senior politician in accusations of abuse at a children's home.

An internal investigation found that the flagship current affairs show Newsnight had made “basic” journalistic errors which led to a former Conservative party treasurer being wrongly implicated in a report this month.

He was later identified as Lord Alistair McAlpine, a key figure in the Tory party from Margaret Thatcher's era, who is considering legal action.

The incorrect allegations led to the sudden resignation of the director-general George Entwistle just weeks after he had taken the job.

In the wake of his departure, the head of news Helen Boaden and her deputy were asked to step aside pending a review into why Newsnight spiked the report about Saville last year. The police now say Saville may have abused 300 victims over decades.

The BBC's 22,800 employees produce a vast range of programmes, encompassing entertainment shows such as “Strictly Come Dancing”, highbrow drama, and coverage of major sports events including the Olympics and the Wimbledon tennis.

It is publicly funded, by the imposition of an annual GBP145.50 ($230, 181 euros) licence fee which every British household with a television must pay.

The BBC's reputation was founded on the reliability of its news -- and so the Newsnight crisis threatens to undermine the entire organisation, as the BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten acknowledged.

“The basis for the BBC's position in this country is the trust that people have in it,” Patten said, “If the BBC loses that, it's over.”

Patten, who was Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, promised a “radical overhaul” of the way the corporation is run and was only half joking when he said the BBC had more senior managers than the Chinese Communist party.

Journalists in the BBC's 6,000-strong news operation complain that layer upon layer of management added over the last decade has obscured decision-making.

The man appointed by Patten as the interim director-general, Tim Davie, said he would simplify the chain of command to avoid a repetition of the mistakes over the Newsnight allegations.

Rupert Murdoch's stable of newspapers, which bitterly resent the BBC's public funding, has relished its woes in editorials which claim that such a huge organisation is increasingly irrelevant in the modern world.

Hewlett said that while the allegations against Saville were harmful to the BBC and its role in the fabric of British life, the perceived lack of leadership was far more damaging.

“The long-term impact of the Saville revelations could be serious because it is potentially challenging to the deep-seated sense of the BBC that people have,” he said. “It makes me think of what a devout Catholic might think when discovering that priests had abused.”

“The effect of that remains to be seen. But I think the bigger problem is that the BBC has looked out of control. It's the sense that no one is in charge.”

The Financial Times is among many voices urging the BBC to look outside its walls for a permanent successor to Entwistle, who spent almost his entire career at the BBC.

His predecessor Mark Thompson, whose own role in the crisis has come under the spotlight just as he has just started work as the chief executive of the New York Times was also a BBC trainee who rose through the ranks.

The Newsnight furore also raises the question of whether the BBC's licence fee is increasingly in danger, either from the government reducing it or disgruntled viewers refusing to pay.

“I see no political appetite for that at the moment,” Hewlett said.

“People are worried about the BBC, they want it to be better run, but they haven't got to the point yet where they say 'we should leave them to get on with it.'”