THE BBC Northern Ireland chief who approved the ‘shoddy’ Newsnight child abuse story will not fall on his own sword.Peter Johnston said he “would not be reconsidering his position” after a report on the programme said there was “ambiguity” about who took ultimate editorial responsibility.
Belfast Daily reported this morning that Mr Johnston was the senior BBC executive who cleared the Newsnight investigation into care home child abuse in North Wales for airing.
But Johnston, who earns £160,000 a year of licence payers money, won’t follow his former boss George Entwhistle who quit on Saturday over the whole affair.
Entwhistle walked away with a year’s salary of £450,000 worth of licence payer’s money which is now to be investigated by the National Audit Office, the watch keeper of public finances.
Tonight, BBC NI released a brief statement saying: “We can confirm he (Peter Johnston) was involved in decisions about the BBC Newsnight report.”
However, Broadcasting House in Ormeau Avenue was refusing to give any more details on Johnston’s role.
It added: “The sequencing of events around this report has been reviewed by Ken MacQuarrie and the BBC has now published a summary of findings and actions.
“The next stage of this process is now underway. It will, amongst other things, seek to clarify decision-making roles and responsibilities in relation to the Newsnight report.
“We expect that these investigations will be concluded as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we will not be making any further comment.
But the media shield thrown around him won’t protect the BBC NI boss from the probing Beeb executive looking into the ‘shoddy’ Newsnight programme.
Johnston was ‘doorstepped’ tonight by BBC NI news reporter Natasha Sayee leaving Broadcasting House in Ormeau Avenue.
Asked if he was going to resign, he said he wouldn’t be reconsidering his position.
Johnston’s role in the Newsnight debacle which threatens his BBC career has exploded onto to Twitter this evening.
Tonight, respected BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson was asked on Twitter had Johnton actually viewed the programmed before it was screened.
Mark tweeted: “That’s one of the many unanswered questions.”
Other unanswered questions include:
* why did it take until lunchtime today before BBC NI covered the story?
* did newsroom editorial have to seek his permission before running the story on him?
* did he seek the advice of any senior editorial staff in Belfast before giving the green light to the Newsnight programme?
These will be questions the Director of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie will be looking to get answeres to.
He has been asked to investigate the circumstances and editorial failings around the Newsnight vprogramme broadcast ten days ago.
A former member of the home claimed he was abused by a senior Conservative party member who was a member of the Thatcher government at the time.
It later emerged that Lord McAlpine was named on the internet as the man at the centre of the allegations.
However, Lord McAlpine denied the allegations saying they were grossly defamatory and planned to sue.
His accuser later publicly apologised, saying police had show him a picture of Lord McAlpine, wrongly accusing him of sexually assaulting him.
In a summary of the report, Ken McQuarrie said that some basic journalistic checks were not completed.
He said that the Newsnight editorial management structure had been “seriously weakened” since the editor stood aside and one of the deputy editors left the BBC.
He said the “editorial leadership of the team was under very considerable pressure”.
He also said that it was “not clear” if the story was considered to be related to the scandal surrounding the late Jimmy Savile.
“A clear decision on this does not appear to have been taken until lunchtime on Friday, 2 November.
“As a consequence there was ambiguity around who was taking the ultimate editorial responsibility for the Newsnight report, particularly in the days leading up to the day of transmission.”
Tonight, the top BBC NI man who is said to have approved the Newsnight programme, said he was not going to quit.
And in a further twist, BBC NI said that there would be no public comment from director Peter Johnston while decision making roles on Newsnight abuse story remain to be resolved.
Earlier today, Belfast Daily reported that director Peter Johnston was the senior BBC executive who gave the green light to run the report because the corporation was “running out of people” from its management to approve it.
This is because many of them, including head of news Helen Boaden and director general George Entwistle, had removed themselves from decision making in Savile-related stories following controversy about their roles.
It is thought that various members of the BBC’s management board were given overall responsibility for material linked to the TV star and broader child-abuse claims.
Mr Johnston’s decision will now be investigated as part of a second probe into BBC2 Newsnights was making wrong editorial decisions.
An insider said: “There were all these people doing things they would not normally do.’”
Mr Johnston, 47, who worked in marketing for Shell and as a management consultant at Coopers and Lybrand, has very little journalistic experience.
He joined BBC Northern Ireland in 1994 initially working in audience research before becoming head of marketing and development in the province.
He was made controller and later director of BBC Northern Ireland in 2006.
A BBC source said: “At the heart of it, what we have had on news is a complete muddle of responsibility and reporting lines.’
Another source said: ‘They were running out of people really.
”It was his [Mr Johnston’s] right to have intervened. He chose not to.’’
The inquiry will seek to find out if Mr Johnston sought the advice of his senior editorial colleagues in Belfast about the Newsnight programme before it was aired.
He has experienced staff who have worked on major investigations for BBC Northern Irelan
Mr Johnston’s unexpected involvement in the programme came as acting director-general Tim Davie, 45, has been handed a report into Newsnight’s botched investigation that wrongly linked a senior politician to child abuse allegations in North Wales.
Up to six senior staff members could be jettisoned in the wake of director general George Entwistle’s sudden departure over the November 2 programme.
Mr Davie, who has no journalistic experience, now finds himself running the world’s best-known broadcaster even though he did not make the final round of interviews when he applied to be director general this year.
His first task will be to assess the report by BBC Scotland’s Ken MacQuarrie into how the Newsnight investigation went so terribly wrong.
BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten has already warned that the two current internal inquiries – one on the dropped Jimmy Savile report and the other on North Wales – ‘may involve people’s jobs as well’.
But there are growing fears among senior staff that the corporation is ‘rudderless’ and there is a power vacuum at the top of the organisation.
Newsnight editor Peter Rippon last month ‘stepped aside’ as the corporation probed the bloody aftermath of the decision to drop an investigation last year into the Savile claims.
And acting editor Liz Gibbons faced tough questioning by the MacQuarrie inquiry which is looking into how the film resulted in Tory peer Lord McAlpine being wrongly branded a paedophile.
Lord McAlpine’s lawyers are now preparing to sue the BBC and other media outlets for running the story that led to him being wrongly named on the internet.
This morning, BBC director of news Helen Boaden and her deputy Steve Mitchell have been asked to “step aside” pending the outcome of an internal review into the handling of the Jimmy Savile claims.
It follows a report into a separate Newsnight broadcast on abuse claims, which said the BBC must resolve a “lack of clarity” in the chain of command.
The director general quit over the broadcast with a £450,000 pay-off.
Downing Street said it was “hard to justify” such a sum.
Sources told the BBC that Prime Minister David Cameron believes it was a matter for George Entwistle’s conscience as to whether he expected the full payoff – a year’s salary after just two months in the job.
Now the National Audit Office will look at whether George Entwhistle was properly entitled to a year’s salary once he quit as director general of the BBC.