LONDON — The BBC’s top executive resigned Saturday night after the prestigious broadcaster’s marquee news magazine wrongly implicated a British politician in a child sex-abuse scandal, deepening the crisis that exploded after it decided not to air similar allegations against one of its own stars who police now say was one of the nation’s worst pedophiles.
In a brief statement outside BBC headquarters, George Entwistle said he decided to do the “honorable thing” and step down after just eight weeks in the job.
“The wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader,” he said.
It was a rapid about-face for Entwistle, a 23-year BBC veteran who earlier Saturday had insisted he had no plans to resign despite growing questions about his leadership and the BBC’s integrity in the wake of the scandals.
John Whittingdale, chairman of the Britain’s Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said Entwistle had no choice but to go, as the BBC’s management appears to have “lost their grip” on the organization.
“I think that what has happened in the last few days has immensely weakened his authority and credibility,” Whittingdale said. “It would have been very difficult for him to continue in those circumstances.”
Entwistle assumed the mantle as head of the BBC two months ago from Mark Thompson, who will become chief executive of The New York Times Co. this month.
A month into the job, the BBC was thrown into crisis with allegations that Jimmy Savile, the renowned BBC TV host who died last year, sexually abused up to several hundred children – some of them on BBC premises – and the revelation that the BBC’s own “Newsnight” investigative program had shelved an investigation into the allegations.
The decision to call off the investigation prompted deep soul-searching at the venerated broadcaster and assurances from Entwistle that he would get to the bottom of the decision.
But the furor was reignited when the same program aired a report on Nov. 2 about 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, McAlpine 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, the suspension of investigative programs at “Newsnight” and mounting questions over Entwistle’s leadership.
Enwistle insisted he was not aware of the program before it was broadcast, saying in hindsight he wished the matter had been referred to him. That claim drew incredulity from politicians and media watchers who wondered how he could have allowed a second botched handling of a high-profile child sex-abuse story only weeks after the Savile scandal.
The BBC Trust’s chairman, Chris Patten, called Saturday “one of the saddest evenings of my public life” but praised Entwistle’s “honor and courage” in tendering his resignation.
“At the heart of the BBC is its role as a trusted global news organization, and as the editor-in-chief of this organization, George has very honorably offered us his resignation because of the unacceptable mistakes and the unacceptable shoddy journalism which has caused so much controversy,” Patten said.
British Culture Secretary Maria Miller welcomed the resignation, calling it “regrettable but the right decision.”
“It is vital that credibility and public trust in this important national institution is restored. It is now crucial that the BBC puts the systems in place to ensure it can make first class news and current affairs programs,” she said.