LONDON — Few seem to be enjoying the management meltdown at the venerable BBC more than Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp. chief whose rival British newspapers have been caught up in their own lengthy, embarrassing and expensive phone hacking scandal.
The British Broadcasting Corp. has moved into full-bore damage control, retracting mistaken allegations of child sex abuse that one of its programs made against a politician. That serious mistake followed the BBC’s earlier failure to report on widespread child sex abuse allegations against one of its biggest stars, the late Jimmy Savile.
Two more top BBC news executives stepped aside Monday, following BBC chief George Entwistle’s exit this weekend.
“BBC mess gives (Prime Minister David) Cameron golden opportunity properly reorganize great public broadcaster,” Murdoch tweeted gleefully Sunday, apparently overlooking the fact that some of his own key former executives are facing criminal charges in the U.K.
The media mogul may be enjoying the spotlight on the BBC’s shortcomings, but both the British print press and the country’s broadcast media are near rock bottom in public esteem and are expected to face increased government restrictions soon on their autonomy.
A judge-led report into the phone hacking scandal, which exploded with the discovery that employees of Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid hacked into a kidnapped girl’s mobile phone, is due later this month. The scandal widened when scores of celebrities, sports stars and politicians said they, too, had been hacked. The tabloid folded, Murdoch’s media paid out millions in compensation and still faces scores of lawsuits.
Some expect the report by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, based on months of jarring testimony about wrongdoing by Murdoch’s reporters and others, will prompt the government to impose statutory regulation on the British print press, which up to now has been overseen by an industry watchdog.
The BBC’s problems could make such a harsh step more popular.
The incomplete and inaccurate BBC news reports, from a broadcaster often trusted for being impartial, have further lowered the public’s view of the media, said Phil Harding, former controller of editorial policy at the BBC.
But he warned other U.K. media to resist the temptation to take revenge on the broadcaster.
“If you really tear into another journalistic organization, what you are going to do is ... undermine public confidence in journalism and in areas that the press ought to be interested and concerned about,” he said Monday at a Society of Editors conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Harding pointed to the upcoming Leveson report as a good reason why the print press should be cautious about attacking the BBC, which holds a privileged position in British society as a “public service” broadcaster.
Last week, more than 40 Conservative Party members of Parliament signed a letter calling for state regulation of the press, which newspaper proprietors fear. The lawmakers argued that the BBC’s independence has not been compromised by answering to OFCOM, the government’s broadcast communications regulator, and that the print press would not be muzzled if subjected to government regulation.
But being overseen by OFCOM did not prevent the BBC from airing incorrect allegations about child sex abuse, or from declining to air allegations against one of its own hosts. Savile, who presented children’s shows for decades, is now suspected of abusing countless underage girls.
Bob Calver, a journalism professor at Birmingham City University, said the reputation of the British media has hit a low point.
“The issues the BBC is dealing with at the moment ... are very different from the phone hacking and illegal intercept of communications which led to the Leveson inquiry,” he said. “(But) clearly in the public mind there won’t be that distinction, the public will see it as poor standards across the board.”
Murdoch’s grudge against the BBC was vented in detail in a 2009 speech by his son James, a TV executive who railed against the BBC’s funding, which comes from a television license fee paid by every TV household in Britain.
Because of its funding “the BBC feels empowered” and “the scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling,” said James Murdoch.
The crisis at the BBC has already led to the departure of its director-general after only 54 days on the job. On Monday, the BBC’s decision to send Entwistle away with a full year’s salary of 450,000 pounds ($715,000) drew even more criticism.
“Clearly, it is hard to justify a sizeable payoff of that sort,” Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field told reporters.
The BBC on Monday also announced that head of news Helen Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell have been temporarily removed, although the broadcaster said neither were implicated in two major misjudgments by the network concerning its child sex abuse reports.
In New York, Mark Thompson, the former director-general of the BBC who was in charge when a BBC investigation into Savile’s alleged abuse was sidelined, said Monday he was “very saddened” by the scandal at the broadcaster. Arriving on the first day of his new job as chief executive of The New York Times, he told reporters he had “no doubt it (BBC) will get back on its feet.”
Iain Overton, who was involved in preparing the “Newsnight” story about the politician, resigned Monday as editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The organization, a nonprofit muckraking group based at City University in London that works with several news organizations, said the BBC story had been “strictly contrary to the fundamental principles and standards of the bureau.”
Further resignations or suspensions at the BBC are likely as the investigation develops.
“Consideration is now being given to the extent to which individuals should be asked to account further for their actions and if appropriate, disciplinary action will be taken,” the BBC said.