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BBC debacle raises more questions on Britain's media

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

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.

But the troubles for both media organizations highlight that the news industry in Britain is at rock-bottom in public esteem, and could face increased restrictions from the government of Prime Minister David Cameron, which appears convinced it has been unable to police itself.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has moved into full-bore damage control since it retracted mistaken allegations by its marquee news program that a politician sexually abused children. 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.

"BBC mess gives Cameron golden opportunity [to] properly reorganize great public broadcaster," Murdoch tweeted gleefully Sunday.

The scandal follows several years of turmoil over 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. 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. Several news executives have been arrested.

A report due this month from Lord Justice Brian Leveson, based on months of jarring testimony about wrongdoing by Murdoch's reporters and others, may prompt the government to impose statutory regulation on the British print press, which is overseen by an industry watchdog.

Many say the reputation of the British media is at an all-time low.

"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," said Bob Calver, a journalism professor at Birmingham City University. "[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.

Phil Harding, the BBC's former controller of editorial policy, warned U.K. media to resist the temptation to criticize too much.

"If you really tear into another journalistic organization, what you are going to do is ... undermine public confidence in journalism," he said Monday at a Society of Editors conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

BBC chief George Entwistle resigned this weekend, and on Monday the head of news, Helen Boaden, and deputy Stephen Mitchell were temporarily removed from their positions, though the broadcaster said neither were implicated in the errors involving its child sex abuse reports.

The broadcaster also came under fire Monday for the terms of Entwistle's removal after only 54 days on the job. He is drawing a full year's salary of 450,000 pounds ($715,000).

"Clearly, it is hard to justify a sizeable payoff of that sort," Cameron's spokesman Steve Field told reporters. 

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.

In New York, Mark Thompson, Entwistle's predecessor who was in charge when a BBC investigation into Savile's alleged abuse was sidelined, said Monday he is "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 has "no doubt it [the BBC] will get back on its feet."

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