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New head of BBC News Fran Unsworth urges staff to stop leaking information

  • @iburrell

The latest head of the BBC News operation has begun her new regime by attempting to stop the flow of information – as she pleaded with colleagues not to contribute to the wave of bad news which is threatening to engulf the organisation in the wake of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals.

As it emerged that the BBC has this week been facing more than 100 different news stories a day highlighting its current difficulties, Fran Unsworth, the acting Director of News, attempted to prevent further leaks by emailing her staff on her first day asking them not to tweet or speak to other news organisations.

“We now need to restore some equilibrium to the organisation,” he said. “It would be helpful if some of our problems were not played out publically across social media and in the pages of the national press.” But members of the world’s biggest news organisation promptly revealed the development.

As concerns grew over the fallout from Newsnight’s misreporting, which led to Lord McAlpine being falsely linked to a paedophile ring, its key witness Steve Messham told BBC Wales’s Week In Week Out that he hoped the affair would not inhibit other child abuse victims from coming forward. “People have got to realise it’s a genuine error on my part,” he said.

Angus Stickler, the former BBC Radio journalist working for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who delivered the story to Newsnight, today gave evidence to the bureau’s trust on his role in the bungled report.

As Ms Unsworth reiterated concerns over the “lack of clarity” in the BBC’s editorial command, BBC journalists were surprised that Radio 5 Live controller Adrian van Klaveren and Director of BBC Northern Ireland Peter Johnston had returned to their usual roles in the news structure, despite having signed off the McAlpine piece. Director of News Helen Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell have been made to “stand aside” from their posts despite having taken no part in that story.

Ms Unsworth’s warnings over leaks and tweets come as the BBC is facing a general crisis of confidence in its internal communications with widespread incredulity at the outgoing Director General George Entwistle’s claim not to have been aware of the risks associated with the controversial Newsnight film both before and after it was broadcast.

Mr Entwistle told interviewer John Humphrys of the Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday that he had not been aware of a tweet referring to the inflammatory nature of the film and had not watched the piece when it was broadcast.

But there was even greater astonishment inside the BBC when Mr Entwistle said he had not read a front page Guardian article exposing the Newsnight story as false. The Director General claimed he had instead been concentrating on a speech (a private talk he delivered to the organisation Public Broadcasters International at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster).

Mr Entwistle was already taking advice over his position from BBC lawyers following the setting up of internal inquiries into the organisation’s handling of the Savile crisis, in which he was involved. It is understood that the Guardian piece, which the Director General chose not to read, was part of a top-level BBC internal communications briefing on Friday, a day before Mr Entwistle’s interview on Today in which he appeared so ill-informed that his position became untenable, leading to his resignation hours later. Somehow he did not register the message from that briefing. “If the system is not referring things it should refer to the editor-in-chief then it’s not working properly,” he complained to Mr Humphrys shortly before stepping down.