BBC settles politician's libel claim in child abuse story for $293,000

The BBC will pay British politician Lord Alistair McAlpine £185,000, to settle his libel claim.

Story highlights

  • The controversy is the second major crisis to hit the BBC in recent months
  • The BBC will pay Lord McAlpine £185,000, or about $293,480
  • The settlement "reflects the gravity of the allegations ... wrongly made," the BBC says
  • The case stemmed from a BBC "Newsnight" program on child abuse allegations

The BBC will pay British politician Lord Alistair McAlpine £185,000, or about $293,480, to settle his libel claim arising from a news program about child abuse allegations at children's homes, the BBC said Thursday.

"The settlement is comprehensive and reflects the gravity of the allegations that were wrongly made," the BBC said.

A BBC "Newsnight" program on November 2 focused on allegations of child abuse from the 1970s and 1980s at children's homes in Wales. It said two victims had alleged that a Conservative, Thatcher-era politician, whom it did not identify by name, had been among their abusers.

After Internet speculation identified McAlpine, a senior political figure of the 1980s, as the alleged abuser, the victim admitted he had identified the wrong man.

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The BBC aired an apology the day after the program was broadcast, but it did little to contain the fallout from the false accusation.

On Monday, the BBC announced that an internal investigation concluded the program's production was marked by a series of "unacceptable" failures.

The investigation into the program was carried out by BBC Scotland Director Ken MacQuarrie, who noted that the complex story had moved from commission to transmission in six days, an unusually short period for the BBC.

During the controversy about the story, McAlpine, former treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, denied any involvement and indicated he would take legal action, MacQuarrie's report said.

The story was the second major crisis to hit the BBC within months.

In late September, the BBC became embroiled in a scandal over its handling of sexual abuse allegations against its late TV presenter Jimmy Savile.

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The scandal exploded amid revelations that "Newsnight" pulled a report into allegations against Savile ahead of a planned tribute to the late TV presenter by the news organization scheduled to air later this year.

Former BBC Director General George Entwistle and others were called in front of lawmakers to answer for the scandal surrounding Savile, who authorities say was suspected of having sexually abused young women and girls, sometimes on BBC premises.

The BBC had established a separate chain of command for all stories related to Savile, but it was not clear whether the Wales story was regarded as Savile-related, MacQuarrie's report said. "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," it said.

In addition, some "basic journalistic checks were not completed" during the editorial process, it continued. "Specifically, identification was not confirmed by photograph with the first victim. The second victim could not be traced in order to provide up to date corroboration. ... No right of reply was offered to the unnamed individual at the center of the allegation."

The "key parties" did not agree on who was responsible for the final editorial approval for the story, he added.

Before MacQuarrie's review was completed, BBC News Director Helen Boaden and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, were asked to "surrender all their responsibilities" pending the outcome of the review, the BBC said.

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