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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.