London - Around the world, the three letters “BBC” have long been synonymous with trustworthy, reliable journalism.
Now the London-based British Broadcasting Corporation, the world's biggest public broadcaster, has been thrown into deep crisis over allegations of sloppy journalism.
It has been accused, and apologised for, the journalistic sin of failing to check and re-check its sources, of outsourcing the production of news programmes and of encouraging “trial by twitter.”
The fact that the subject at stake in the controversy is the sensitive topic of child abuse has not made things any easier.
Add to that the fact that the person wrongly implicated in the abuse story is a former high ranking Tory politician, and the cocktail becomes almost toxic.
But worse still: The Newsnight TV programme in which the allegations were made was broadcast at the height of a separate scandal over Jimmy Savile, a deceased BBC entertainer accused of abusing hundreds of children during his four decades at the BBC.
By rushing out the Newsnight programme on November 2, alleging that a “top Tory” was implicated in a child abuse scandal in Wales in the 1980s, the BBC laid itself open to accusations of wanting to divert attention from its own travails over paedophilia.
The BBC has publicly apologised to Robert Alistair McAlpine, a property magnate and former Conservative Party treasurer during the 1980s reign of ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for airing the programme in which he was wrongly implicated - though not named.
“In the light of unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday, 2nd November, I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of director-general,” said George Entwistle, the BBC's editor-in-chief, in his resignation statement Saturday.
More heads have rolled since, as Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust governing body, remains in the firing line. A pay-off for Entwistle, 50, of an entire annual salary of £450 000 (about R 715 000), has also come under attack.
Critics have pointed out that the programme in question was made not by Newsnight journalists, but produced in collaboration with a Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an outside research group attached to London's City University.
It emerged that those working on the programme never even tried to question McAlpine, 70, over the allegations, made by a former resident of a children's home. The BBC itself guided visitors of its website to the fact that the name of the alleged “suspect” was circulating on the internet and in social networks.
When McAlpine finally went public over the allegations Friday - the same day the Guardian newspaper revealed his identity - the BBC appeared to remain unaware of the storm that was brewing over the corporation.
It was not until more than 24 hours later that Entwistle, who had been in his job for just two months, announced his decision to step down.
“BBC management is in complete disarray, it needs to get a grip,” said Neil Midgley, assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph. The corporation could no longer try to get away with “fudged solutions.” Not the journalism, but the many layers of editorial and managerial bureaucracy at the BBC needed shaking up, he suggested.
Steven Barnett, an expert in media studies at London's Westminster University, believes that the BBC must act quickly to calm the “febrile atmosphere” that has been allowed to develop over the scandals.
“The BBC is a broadcasting organization which upholds the gold plated standards of journalism. It needs to take a step back to investigate what really happened, and why it happened,” said Barnett.
With the BBC's many enemies, including powerful Rupert Murdoch-owned media, and other British newspapers, circling to damage the image of the licence fee funded station, Barnett said the BBC's primary focus should be on keeping the trust of its global audience of nearly 240 million. - Sapa-dpa