Will the BBC "do a Murdoch" and close Newsnight?

The troubled current affairs show has suspended all investigations and a senior executive has been order to examine its botched report into allegations of child abuse at a Welsh care home.

The BBC's flagship late-night current affairs show, Newsnight, is facing an uncertain future after a second scandal related to investigations of sexual abuse.

The Friday night edition of the programme carried an on-air apology for an investigation on 2 November which wrongly hinted that Tory peer Lord McAlpine was involved in a paedophile ring at the Bryn Estyn care home. Although McAlpine was not named on the show, the report stoked speculation on social media sites over his identity. He has since denied the allegations, and abuse victim Steve Messham has said that he wrongly identified him.

In a statement released yesterday, the BBC said:

1. A senior news executive has been sent in to supervise tonight’s edition of Newsnight

2. An apology will be carried in full on Newsnight tonight

3. Ken MacQuarrie, Director BBC Scotland, will write an urgent report for the DG covering what happened on this Newsnight investigation

4. There will be an immediate pause in all Newsnight investigations to assess editorial robustness and supervision

5. There will be an immediate suspension of all co-productions with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism across the BBC

The future of Newsnight is now being openly discussed, with its own presenter, Eddie Mair, asking a guest "Is Newsnight toast?" and concluding the programme by asking: "That's all we have for tonight. Newsnight will be back on Monday. Probably."

Yesterday's edition carried no editor's name on the credits - Peter Rippon having previously stepped aside over an "inaccurate" blog explaining why he decided not to run an expose of sexual abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile.

The fact that this is a second error relating to reports on historic child abuse is a catastrophe for Newsnight - particularly as the BBC's director-general, George Entwistle, used to work there. He was yesterday touring the studios (although only the BBC ones, rival outlets noted) to explain what happens next.

He said that shutting the programme down - as Rupert Murdoch did to the News of the World when the scandals there became too toxic - was a "disproportionate" response, although he acknowledged the BBC was suffering a "crisis of trust".

He told John Humphreys on Radio 4's Today programme that he expected Newsnight staff to be asked questions:

Did the journalists carry out basic checks? Did they show Mr Messham the picture? Did they put allegations to the individual? Did they think of putting allegations to the individual? If they did not why not? And did they have any corroboration of any kind? These are the things we need to understand because this film as I say had the legal referral, was referred up through the chain yet it went ahead. There's some complexity here I absolutely need to get to the bottom of.

The Newsnight investigation has landed the programme in trouble. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Show Hide image

What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.