LONDON (AP) — The BBC's director general said Saturday that it should not have aired a report that wrongly implicated a politician in a child sex-abuse scandal, admitting that the program further damaged trust in a broadcaster already reeling from the fallout over its decision not to air similar allegations against one of its star hosts.
George Entwistle's comments followed an embarrassing retreat for the BBC, which apologized Friday for its Nov. 2 "Newsnight" TV show on alleged sex abuse in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. During the program, victim Steve Messham claimed he had been abused by a senior Conservative Party figure. The BBC didn't name the alleged abuser, but online rumors focused on Alistair McAlpine, a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords. On Friday, he issued a fierce denial and threatened to sue.
Messham then said he had been mistaken about his abuser's identity and apologized to McAlpine, prompting fury over the BBC's decision to air the report and the suspension of investigative programs at "Newsnight."
"We should not have put out a film that was so fundamentally wrong," Entwistle told BBC radio on Saturday. "What happened here is completely unacceptable."
But Enwistle's insistence that he was not aware of the program before it was broadcast — saying in hindsight he wished the matter had been referred to him — has drawn incredulity from politicians and media watchers wondering how he could have allowed a second botched handling of a high-profile child sex-abuse story so soon after the broadcaster was pitched into crisis over allegations against its late TV host Jimmy Savile.
"At the end of the day, the director general of the BBC is editor-in-chief," said John Whittingdale, chairman of the government's Culture, Media and Sport Committee. "This has done immense damage to the reputation of the BBC."
The scandal around Savile, who died last year and who is alleged to have sexually abused many young people, put the BBC and its premier investigative program "Newsnight" on the firing line after it emerged the program had decided to shelve its own report into allegations against Savile.
The uproar over that decision had already prompted deep soul searching at the long-venerated broadcaster, and now the latest blunder involving McAlpine by the same program could mean even more fallout.
Entwistle, who became director general of the BBC eight weeks ago, acknowledged that the network is facing a "bad crisis" of trust but that he has taken "clear and decisive action" to find out what happened with the program on abuse in Wales. He said he expects a report into what went wrong to be on his desk by Sunday, adding that staffers could be disciplined.
But many people — lawmakers and journalists alike — are questioning why a program leveling such serious allegations about a politician was not vetted by Entwistle himself, especially in wake of the Savile scandal.
When the Savile scandal broke, Enwistle said he is a hands-off chief executive who relies on a BBC system under which issues are brought to his attention by competent editors and executives.
He pleaded the same in a combative BBC radio interview on Saturday, saying that with the McAlpine report, as far as he could tell, it had been referred to senior figures in the BBC's news, management and legal divisions.
But the two severe blows to the BBC's credibility and criticism of his management skills have led to speculation that Enwistle could lose his job.
"He's not sounding like a man in charge," said Kevin Marsh, a former senior editor at the BBC, citing "misstep after misstep" in Entwistle's handling of the crises.
Marsh said the Savile case emerged just after Enwistle took his current position, " but what I can't understand is how he didn't learn the lessons from that. He can't go on coming across as this completely incurious beast."
Marsh said that fallout from the McAlpine scandal means Entwistle's job could be on the line — and worse still, the future of investigative journalism at the BBC during a crisis of trust.
British Culture Secretary Maria Miller said Saturday that events of the past few days underline the "vital importance of restoring credibility" to the BBC.
Harriet Harman, a top official in the opposition, said it is clear that something had gone "badly wrong" at" Newsnight. " She said Entwistle "needs to show decisively that he is addressing the systemic problems which are in evidence here."
Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd