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BBC Crisis: MP John Whittingdale Calls For Complete Overhaul Of Corporation

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JOHN WHITTINGDALE BBC
MP John Whittingdale said the greatest strength of the BBC is the trust it has | PA

The "monumental failures" at the BBC must prompt a complete overhaul of the corporation's management structures, the chair of an influential Westminster committee has urged.

John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told a gathering of national media editors that the crisis at the BBC was so serious because it had undermined public trust in traditional news outlets.

The Conservative MP said the corporation's "deserved" reputation as one of the finest broadcasters in the world had been endangered, the Press Association reported.

The BBC has been engulfed in troubles as a result of a Newsnight programme which mistakenly implicated Lord McAlpine in a sex abuse scandal and the on-going issues over its handling of the Jimmy Savile abuse claims.

The corporation's director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, temporarily stepped aside on Monday just two days after the resignation of director-general George Entwistle.

Mr Whittingdale issued the warning as he made the keynote address at the Society of Editors annual conference in Belfast.

"What happened at the BBC, that plainly the checks and safeguards which are necessary failed at every level, and that therefore there does need in my view to be a complete overhaul of the management structure," he said.

"Because the greatest strength of the BBC is that it can be trusted by people, people didn't doubt that if they heard an item on the news on the BBC that it must be true.

"And it is a failure therefore in the BBC of quality control which is the basic requirement of trust and I think that is quite destructive."

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The conference was hit by a number of late withdrawals of BBC delegates as they focused on the travails at the corporation.

The most notable absentee was society president and the BBC's head of newsgathering Fran Unsworth after she returned to London to take over from Ms Boaden.

Another scheduled contributor at the conference who sent his apologies was Iain Overton, who quit on Monday as editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the independent organisation that helped put together the controversial Newsnight report about Lord McAlpine.

Mr Whittingdale told the delegates who did attend that the crucial distinction that separated newspapers and broadcasters from anonymous information available online was reliability.

"The BBC's failure was so serious because the dividing line between gossip on the internet and serious investigative journalism seemed to break down in terms of the programme broadcast on Newsnight," he said.

As well as the Newsnight report, the MP also criticised the actions of ITV1 presenter Phillip Schofield last week when he handed the prime minister a list of alleged paedophiles he had found online.

"In each case, in my view, that was grossly irresponsible," he said.

"Firstly because of the damage it potentially did to the individuals concerned, but secondly because it did absolutely undermine this principle that professional journalists make absolutely sure that their stories are right before they start broadcasting them or publishing them."

Earlier the conference heard a former BBC senior executive warn newspapers that excessive criticism of the broadcaster was having an impact on public confidence in all journalism.

Phil Harding, ex-controller of editorial policy at the BBC, acknowledged the crisis at the national broadcaster was a significant story but said he felt some of the press "vilification" had been over the top.

"Not all MPs are expense account fiddlers, not all newspaper editors are phone-hacking knaves, neither are all BBC bosses chumps," he said.

Mr Harding was taking part in a panel discussion on the forthcoming report by Lord Justice Leveson into press standards and the prospect of statutory regulations being introduced.

He acknowledged that some of the newspaper criticism of the BBC may have been in part influenced by the corporation's past attitude to the press.

But he warned: "It's not going to do the press any good to try and get their revenge on this one."

He indicated that negative public attitudes towards journalists could influence the debate and decisions set to be taken on the back of Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations.

"I would say to my friends in the press just be careful what you wish for, this is going to have an impact on public opinion," he said.

"If you really tear into another journalistic organisation what you are going to do is you are going to undermine public confidence in journalism and in areas that the press ought to be interested and concerned about.

"This is going to have read across to the attitudes of public opinion and that I think is what Leveson is going to play in to.

"I am not arguing of course that this isn't a story, of course it is, it's a great story - people should be examining the BBC and the BBC should be doing it, but some of the vilification that has gone on in the last few days I personally think has been over the top."

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