Senior heads roll as McAlpine scandal rocks BBC

By Ian Dunt

The director and deputy director of BBC News were told to "stand aside" today, as the acting boss of the corporation moved to draw a line under the multiple scandals being reported in the press.

There were frantic scenes at the corporation as Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell became the victims of continued anger over Newsnight's failure to report allegations against Savile.

But the move, which pre-empts Nick Pollard's investigation, is likely to anger many at the BBC and it is understood it will be challenged by the pair.

Tim Davie - the acting director general following the dramatic resignation of George Entwistle this weekend - will ask Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering, and Ceri Thomas, editor of the Today programme, to replace the pair.

Later today, he is expected to reveal the report by Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, into Newsnight's erroneous allegations against Lord McAlpine earlier this month.

"The first decision I made is to get a grip and rebuild trust by putting in a clear line of command," he said.

"I have a job to do, to get a grip on the situation. The BBC needs strong leadership. Thats what I want to bring."

As the announcements were made, the prime minister's spokesman offered stark words of warning to the corporation.

"It's clear that the last few weeks have affected the credibility of that organisation," he said.

"The important thing is for [BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties.

"Clearly they are now focused on those problems and are getting a grip."

Senior editors at BBC News were briefed around 10:00 GMT, with departmental meetings following later in the morning.

Iain Overton, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which worked with Newsnight on the McAlpine story, also resigned today.

The organisation tweeted: "An inquiry to establish the role of the bureau in the story is in urgent progress. An interim report will be issued as soon as possible."

The moves against Boaden and Mitchell are particularly controversial because they were not directly involved in the Savile decisions. Many in the corporation are thought to believe that Newsnight's McAlpine programme would not have run if they were involved.

Labour demanded an urgent question in the Commons on the crisis at the BBC, on a day when developments were emerging on a minute-by-minute basis.

McAlpine himself looked set to take some of his Twitter accusers to court, after it emerged legal action could take place against people who mentioned him on the social networking site.

The peer's legal team, led by Tory front bencher Edward Garnier, could take action against the wife of the Speaker, Sally Bercow, and leading Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who both mentioned him online.

"Yes, I have apologised for McAlpine tweet in which I noted that his name was trending (which, at the time, it was). I was irresponsible," Bercow wrote today.

"I have not heard from McAlpine's lawyers. Tho' I may do. As may thousands of Twitter users, some of whom tweeted far worse.

"Very sorry. Was irresponsible & mischievous. Libellous? I don't think so. But we'll have to see."

Today's developments come after Entwistle's resignation late on Saturday night, which was prompted by Newsnight's apology to Lord McAlpine.

Patten is currently on the search for a successor, with reports suggesting he is tapping up former BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thomson or Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards.

Question Time presenter David Dimbleby appeared on the Today programme this morning and instantly became a fan favourite for the post with a passionate defence of public service broadcasting combined with a savage attack on the management culture at the corporation.

"The BBC is still world's greatest broadcaster but what it has is a crisis of management of its own making," he said.

"In my opinion BBC is still over managed and management speak gobbledegook. It's gone bonkers."

The BBC was also under fire this morning for the size of George Entwistle's pay-off. He will receive a full year's salary of £450,000 after less than two months in the job.

The payout triggered an angry backlash across the political spectrum. No 10 made its displeasure known and media secretary Maria Miller said she would speak to Patten about the issue.

"It is not justifiable for the BBC to pay double the contractually required sum to the director general on his resignation. It looks like a reward for failure," said shadow media secretary Harriet Harman.

"This is not the way to restore public confidence in the BBC."

Media committee chairman and Tory MP John Whittingdale said: "A lot of people will be very surprised that somebody who was in the job for such a short period of time and then had to leave in these circumstances should be walking away with £450,000 of licence fee payers' money.

"Certainly I would want to know from the trust why they think that's appropriate. I find it very difficult to see a justification for that amount of money to be paid to somebody who has had to resign in these circumstances."

Entwistle's contract entitles him only to six months pay, but the full year payment is ostensibly a reflection of his continued involvement in the various BBC inquiries set up over the Savile and McAlpine affairs.

Some have suggested the pay-off means Entwistle was forced out rather than going willingly.