Mail names BBC NI Director as the weak link in latest crisis…

Suddenly the vast and inscrutable machine of the BBC is under intense investigation, and the hunt is on for whomever it was at Director level that signed off on the Newsnight.

The Daily Mail believes it has found the weak link in the chain. The person they now claim was responsible for sign off at the highest level was the Director of BBC NI, Peter Johnston.

Johnson, whose core competence is audience development, found himself with executive responsibilities for national news after the last round of cuts, when the national directors in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where pushed up a rung.

Ken MacQuarrie who is compiling a report on what when wrong is Johnston’s analogue in BBC Scotland.

Update [Alan] – BBC News published a handy org chart of responsibility

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  • An earlier Daily Mail account has this comment:

    Acting editor Liz Gibbons faced tough questioning by the MacQuarrie inquiry which is looking into how the discredited film led to Tory peer Lord McAlpine being wrongly labelled a paedophile on the internet.

    Adrian Van Klaveren, Miss Gibbons’s boss, who was drafted in to keep an eye on ‘Savile-related’ material after Mr Rippon’s departure, is also facing a nervous morning today.

    Adrian referred the story up to Peter Johnston. Did he consider contacting Chris Patten, Chair of BBC Trust, long time political associate of Lord McAlpine – or Lord McAlpine himself? According to Adrian’s BBC biography:

    He joined the BBC as a news trainee in 1983 and worked in television production, before progressing to senior editorial roles on the flagship BBC News programmes; the Nine O’Clock News, Panorama, and Newsnight.

    Adrian looks much more of a weak link than Peter; he is the one with the relevant expertise and experience. Peter, like the interim DG, comes from the world of marketing, the world of myth-making.

  • The BBC has received the MacQuarrie report and will be issuing a statement later today.

  • Mick Fealty

    Van Klaverin was the safe pair of hands par excellance. As I note, the problem Johnson was confronted with (apart from a mismatch in skill sets) was that he had no alternative critical resources to draw upon to flag up the problem.

  • Brian Walker

    If this report is true it placed a heavy burden on Peter, BBCNI controllers/directors rightly carry weight over NI subjects but to extend the role to signing off a story outside his area already (allegedly) approved by the controller of Radio 5 Live who was temporarily supervising Newsnight seems unwise.

    It could only have happened because of the structural fact that Peter as NI Director is a member of the News Group, a position which is frankly an anomaly but part of the subsuming of the old Nations and Regions group into News.

    Are you all with me? This may seem over bureaucratic and arcane but came into being as a form of vertical integration and to save money – precisely the opposite of what many including distinguished presenters such as David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman who know and care nothing about management are claiming.

    Meanwhile Acting DG Tim Davie’s attempts to create clear if temporary lines of management control in News are not having an easy ride, according to Robert Peston.
    It looks as if some seniro managers are going to fight at least for reputation and even perhaps to keep their jobs.

    “Helen Boaden and Steve Mitchell have been asked to surrender all their responsibilities as head and deputy head of BBC News, pending the results of the Pollard inquiry, I have learned.

    Mr Davie and Lord Patten are understood to believe that Ms Boaden’s and Mr Mitchell’s decision to withdraw from all decision-making on the way the BBC reports the Jimmy Savile scandal has created confusion at BBC News about who is in charge.

    There is likely to be widespread anger within BBC News at what will be seen as a pre-empting of the results of Nick Pollard’s investigation into why Newsnight abandoned an investigation into Jimmy Savile’s paedophile activities last December.

    The decision to ask Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell to stand aside will be rooted in the results of this weekend’s investigation into a later journalistic mistake by Newsnight, its broadcast 10 days ago of allegations that a senior Tory was involved in child abuse.

    However, neither Ms Boaden or Mr Mitchell were in the decision-making chain that led to Newsnight’s broadcast.

    As I understand it, the senior editorial figure who signed off the broadcast, Adrian Van Klaveren, will today return to his job as controller of BBC Radio 5 Live.

    Over the weekend, I consulted colleagues on what they thought ought to be the consequence of the latest debacle at Newsnight.

    Many said they believed Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell ought to be put firmly back in charge of news, because of the perception that they would never have permitted the latest child abuse story to have run on Newsnight.

    As for what the Pollard review may conclude about the conduct of Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell, I understand that Peter Rippon – the suspended editor of Newsnight – does not believe he was put under pressure by either Ms Boaden or Mr Mitchell to pull the Savile investigation.
    Any criticism of them is therefore likely to be for the long delay in correcting a blog by Mr Rippon about Newsnight’s failure to run the Savile film.

    My understanding is that Mr Davie believes it is unfair to ask Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell to continue in their day jobs with the shadow of the Pollard inquiry hanging over them.

    He believes that George Entwistle’s effectiveness as Director General was undermined by the fact he too was being probed by Mr Pollard. Mr Entwistle resigned on Saturday.

    I have learned that lawyers acting for Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell have informed Mr Davie that they are quite capable of running BBC News, even with the uncertainty created by the Pollard inquiry.”

  • Framer

    Mr Johnston is the Controller of BBC NI [text removed] considered big enough to take critical decisions, especially at speed.

    So was he governed by group think when he gave the Newsnight report the go-ahead?

    Anyone who saw it knew it was innuendo based on one man’s evidence which it was even said had done the rounds before. Nothing new was added. It was plainly an exercise in reputational rebuilding and getting the Tories.

    Apparently Messham had already been successfully sued in a libel action. Did Johnston not have the wit to look him up on the web like the Guardian?

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks to Alan by the way for the organisational chart…

  • Framer – to fact check … The BBC report Peter Johnston’s total remuneration for last year as a fraction of £zillion, a mere £152,800.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed Alan. I’d just removed that reference because it was so misleading.

  • Framer

    It may not be zillions to you Mick but it is more than the Prime Minister earns – for a little less responsibility.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, insofar as zillions means anything it does not mean £152,800 pa. Best to stick to what we know of the facts, where possible.

  • Brian Walker

    Peter Johnson’s’ role confirmed in passing by Nick Hyam on BBC One O’Cock News and..

  • Adrian Van Klaveren may be considered a safe pair of hands but it’s amazing to me that he and senior editor, Liz Gibbons, didn’t appear to know how to handle a political hot potato.

  • Did the buck for the Newsnight programme stop with Peter Johnston? BBC NI News is phrasing it more coyly:

    Peter Johnston, the director of BBC NI, had some involvement with the programme prior to it being broadcast.

    It is not yet known exactly what that involvement was. ..

    The BBC press office has said Mr Johnston is not available for interview at the moment.

    In light of the fate of George Entwhistle, that’s probably a good idea.

  • sonofstrongbow

    It is, to say the least, unpalatable that the child abuse victims seem to have been somewhat sidelined as the media has been consumed with BBC management report-lines and editorial protocols.

    The print media will relish this focus as it’ll be payback time for the BBC’s sometimes holier than thou attitude during Levenson.

    One can however see how the Newsnight debacle could have occurred. Given the leftie ambience of the BBC in London (one that translates to soft-green in BBCNI) and with Newsnight under the cosh over its mishandling of the Jimmy Saville affair the possibility of a senior Thatcher Tory being a paedophile must have been like the programme’s Christmas had come early.

    The chance to return the BBC to its (self) hyped position as the ‘nation’s most trusted news provider’ [sic] was too good to miss apparently.

    In the rush to get the story out corners were obviously cut and facts and evidence not bothered with. Let’s hope Lord McAlpine gets a chance to hang them out to dry in the libel courts.

  • iluvni

    “BBC Newsline asked the BBC for comment but no-one was available”

    Have you ever heard the like of it?

  • Atholl Duncan – a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland and the creator of BBC Scotland’s investigative journalism unit – is bemused:

    What I find most difficult to comprehend is why the allegations in the Newsnight story were not put to Lord McAlpine before the story was broadcast. In my 25 years of carrying out and overseeing investigative journalism, I know that at the moment when you confront the name in your frame, you nearly always learn something new or something that alters your story. In this case, the journalists would have heard a response that would surely have led them, at the very least, to carry out further checks. The fact that the Newsnight team had decided not to name Lord McAlpine is irrelevant. The inevitable consequence of running the story is that his name would out.

    I also find it extremely surprising that the investigation seemed to be a joint effort with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University. Since when did the BBC outsource serious investigative journalism?

    The editorial governance, checks and balances appear to be in disarray. A story that claims to prove a senior Tory grandee is a child abuser is no run-of-the-mill investigation. How the evidence wasn’t picked apart when challenged by senior editorial and legal figures is the most difficult thing to grasp. I am told the three BBC News executives who I would rely on to get these things right were not involved, as they have been pushed aside to accommodate the Savile Newsnight inquiry.

  • Harry Flashman

    One of the continuing complaints lodged by BBC insiders is that these problems all stem from the “cutbacks” (the BBC’s favourite term for the government increasing borrowing and spending at a slightly reduced rate than it increased it by the previous year).

    We are told the Beeb has been cut to the bone, the profesionals have all been oxtered out to make way for flinty-eyed bean counters. We’ll leave aside the distinctly unflinty-eyed nature of the salaries that Beeb professionals draw down, or the whopping great pay-offs they receive for 54 days’ work in which they nearly brought a once mighty institution to its knees.

    Does anyone else who looks at that dog’s breakfast of a management structure (all on expense accounts and gold-plated pension packages and all funded by the poor bloody tax-payer) believe for one nano-second that the Beeb’s problems stem from a skeleton staff?

    What the feck do these geezers do all day? Hold meetings and make inspirational speeches (as the D-G was doing when the train hit the platform)?

    Look at those job titles, acting deputy director of news, director of news, editorial lead and controller, deputy director news and head news programmes, how in the name of all that’s holy does anybody get anything done with that lot faffing about the place trying to justify their salaries?

    Memo to Beeb, have a look at the Catholic Church’s management structure; pope, cardinal, bishop, priest. Ok that might be a bit too simple but it just might be a better place to start from rather than the drunken-spider management structure you have these days.

    Over manned, too many jobsworths, no one able to make a decision, fat expense accounts and a nice pay off at the end. Imagine that, the BBC is exactly what we all thought it was; a bloated, tax-payer subsidized, make work scheme for civil servants.

    British Leyland in the 1970s looks like Microsoft by comparison.

  • Framer

    The MacQuarrie report, so far as it goes, is badly written and devoid of the key facts as to why Newsnight’s McAlpine report was dreamt up, and why and when the Bureau of ‘Investigative’ Journalism was selected to make it.
    The report concentrates on the absence of normal editorial higher-ups post Savile, being the culprit.
    Listening to Steve Hewlett and various Professors of Journalism on the BBC, today and yesterday, I know now the real issue behind Newsnight can never come out.
    One did mention the Bureau, but in the same breath he spoke of the (imaginary) 20% Tory cutz as being to blame for their use.
    MacQuarrie has therefore to be a mixture of a whitewash and a cover-up; perhaps an unconscious cover-up, which is both the most devastating and yet unremarkable fact.
    The BBC et al just cannot conceptualise that it was bias, and particularly anti-Tory bias, that led them into this disaster.
    The Bureau must have approached Newsnight, out of the blue, and proffered a reheated version of Angus Stickler’s Welsh Boys Home report. No new facts were on offer while Stickler, at best, was so incompetent he did not know Messham had previously said his abuser was dead.
    But the Bureau must have emphasised the top Thatcher Tory nature of the story. Newsnight thought Christmas had come early and common sense went out the window, as their bias was tickled.
    Can MacQuarrie or the pro-BBC professors say that?
    Of course not, so we will never read anything convincing about the whole matter.
    Meanwhile, Cameron in a panic over the witch hunt that Newsnight and Tom Watson had generated, with Hague as a former Welsh secretary, yet again, in the frame (and a spokesman who is ex-BBC) instituted two pointless enquiries.
    The BBC should pay for them.
    The Northern Ireland Director, Peter Johnston, who we now know signed off the Newsnight programme, could only allow it to be broadcast after the Savile one had been suppressed and the view that the children should be heard – without question or investigation – had taken over.
    Only if Johnston had conceptualised the anti-Tory prejudice behind the programme, could he have had the strength to say no, and only if he had perceived the tendency to witch hunting in such matters (think Orkney for one) would he have stopped it.
    However, he probably wouldn’t have survived a day if he had.

  • Granni Trixie

    I never aspired to go up the managerial ladder. But I cannot be the only one now thinking “I could do better” vis a vis the debacle over the Newsnight programme in which someone good name was assassinated. .

    First of all, why did WHOEVER made the programme not give some thoughts to the law,to cover themselves,to preempt being sued. Is this not basic common sense? Surely this sought to have been considered before going up the ladder for final decisions? I also want to know have the BBC not got systems for highlighting risk..For example,even some voluntary groups have a traffic light system in which various kinds of risk are assessed into amber, green or red (red being highest level of risk). Risks may be financial, reputational etc. and it means that at a glance one can anticipate,to mitigate, risks.

    If I a lowly former teacher have picked up knowledge of legal obligations and risk management why not people working for the BBC? It’s not rocket science.

  • Granni Trixie

    PS should have added the most important point to be made:how very unfortunate that this whole matter has not only impacted on one individual but also deflected from the focus on finding out the truth about the apparent sustained abuse of children.

  • The BBC summary of the (to be published later) MacQuarrie report claims that the programme went from commissioning to broadcasting in five days, that there was a shortage of senior editorial staff, that elementary journalistic blunders were made and that there was confusion as to whether or not it should have been filed under Savile and over who was to sign it off.

    This summary could be viewed as an organisation in a shambolic state or an attempt to muddy the waters. It highlights the waste of time and money spent on internal investigations where there’s a strong public interest.

    With an old idiom in mind, one can publish in haste and repent at leisure. In this case, the repentance is likely to be made more comfortable at the licence-payers’ expense.