The McAlpine error and dwindling trust in the BBC
The report of the Editorial Standards Committee for the BBC Trust has found that failures in checking a story about child abuse at a former children’s home in Wales severely diminishes trust in the BBC.
The report follows the broadcast on Newsnight of a report alleging that two victims had been abused by “a leading Conservative politician from the Thatcher years”. The politician was not identified but following tweets and online news reports the alleged perpetrator was said to be Lord McAlpine.
Channel 4 News approached Lord McAlpine, who strongly denied the allegations and said he would sue the BBC. but the Newsnight team working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, did not put the allegations to Lord McAlpine.
Nor did they show a photo of Lord McAlpine to the alleged victim. Subsequently, the BBC’s Director-General George Entwistle resigned and the BBC had to apologise to Lord McAlpine and settled a libel claim.
The summary of the MacQuarrie report commissioned in the immediate aftermath of the furore in November found: the Newsnight management structure was weakened after the editor stood aside following the Jimmy Savile row and the departure of one of the deputy editors; there was ambiguity around who took ultimate editorial responsibility; and that basic editorial checks were not made.
Channel 4 News special report: The past on trial
Now the Editorial Standards Committee says the BBC has a tradition of excellent investigative journalism and that it was right it should expose wrongdoing.
The report says: “It is therefore extremely important that strong corroborative information is available to substantiate an accusation of abuse. The consequences of an individual being wrongly identified as an abuser are extremely serious for the accused, and his or her family.
“It could lead to additional distress for the victim. It also severely diminishes trust in the BBC.”
The trust did not attach importance to the fact the report had been carried out by a freelance journalist but they said undue weight was placed on the fact the reporter, Angus Stickler, had interviewed the person making the allegations several years earlier.
The trustees found there had been a “most serious breach of the accuracy guidelines” and that the “allegations were not based on sound evidence”.
“Whilst there was no suggestion that the programme-makers had sought to mislead the public, this had been the effect.”
The trustees have now asked for a report from the BBC executive on the steps to be taken to ensure lessons have been learned.
The report said: “This has been a grave breach which has been costly to all concerned.” They apologised to Lord McAlpine and to he public for this “serious failure of BBC journalism”.
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