Newsnight crisis: it is inconceivable that further heads will not roll

Ironically, the lack of checks on the McAlpine might be helpful to some top BBC figures, but they're far from in the clear yet.

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News that the most senior figures in the BBC News Division have “stood aside” may not come as a surprise at a time when the organisation's “shoddy journalism” has created a crisis that has brought down its Director General.

But the sidelining of Helen Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell comes in the wake of a story for which they had no responsibility. Both had been "recused" from the editorial chain of command for Newsnight's disastrous Lord McAlpine story because they were already linked to a BBC inquiry into the failures of the same programme's Jimmy Savile investigation.

Some might argue that these were really two separate stories and that the two leading executives in BBC News should have been heavily involved in a film that seemed certain to put the organisation on a collision course with the Conservative party. By allowing them to stand aside (and only oversee stories that didn't deal with Savile or child abuse), the BBC created a leadership vacuum and a level of confusion that allowed a deeply flawed piece to be rushed onto air in a bid to save Newsnight's reputation, which was already so badly damaged by its timidity over Savile. Now, like a pair of Nashville line dancers, the pair have stepped aside from the position they'd taken up after their previous crab-like motion.

Ironically, the lack of checks on the McAlpine story before it went to air - including the calamitous error of not asking the subject Steve Messham to identify a picture of his alleged attacker - may be helpful to some of the figures at the top of BBC News as they fight to defend their good names.

Ms Boaden has been criticised within the BBC newsrooms for allowing a culture of caution to inhibit the courage of the Corporation's journalism. But under her eight year tenure in the wake of the Hutton inquiry into Today's failings in reporting on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the BBC has until recently been relatively free of editorial scandal. Now she and Mr Mitchell might argue that we are witnessing the much greater damage caused to the world's most famous broadcaster when it plays fast and loose with the facts in a bid to land a sensational story.

Similarly Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor who was also forced to shuffle sideways into the shadows after the quashing of the Savile investigation, could point out that the McAlpine fiasco shows how right he was to be ultra-cautious in risking his programme's reputation on the historic claims of alleged child abuse victims.
Nonetheless, Rippon's erroneous blog - published in the early stages of this scandal and helping to set the tone for the BBC's mishandling of this crisis - means that he is far from in the clear. With BBC News in disarray the futures of Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell must also be in doubt because with the findings of three internal inquiries pending it is inconceivable that further BBC heads will not roll.

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