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BBC news scandal: How big of a threat to British journalism?

The BBC's director general has resigned after a two-part scandal at the British Broadcasting Corporation – one of which wrongly implicated a member of Britain's Conservative Party as a child molester.

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A general view of the BBC headquarters in London, Sunday, Nov. 11.

Alastair Grant/AP

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Disciplinary action is under way today against BBC staff involved in a botched report on its flagship current affairs show as the corporation struggles to get a grip on one of its worst crises and perhaps the greatest challenge to its prestige in its 90-year history.

The scandal, which led to the resignation of the new BBC director general on Saturday after just 54 days on the job, and which may yet result in the departure of the chairman of the independent trust that governs the news organization, centers on two separate items prepared for the “Newsnight” current affairs TV program.

One, broadcast on Nov. 2, wrongly alleged that a senior conservative politician from Margaret Thatcher’s administration sexually abused boys. That error was grave enough in itself, but the damage to the BBC was exacerbated by the fact that it was already facing questions about why it had shelved a "Newsnight" investigation into sex abuse allegations against one of its biggest stars, the late Jimmy Savile.

Amid widespread fallout from the controversy, many fear that Britain’s public broadcaster’s tradition of independence is under threat and that commercial competitors and political critics could use the opportunity to lobby for change. Conservative members of Parliament are already using the crisis to bolster arguments against the license fee, which is levied on television set owners as a means of subsidizing the BBC. However, others are concerned that the public service broadcaster’s world-class investigative journalism could somehow be reined in or compromised. 

“There is so much pressure on commercial media at the moment that it's vital that the BBC keeps its place in British national life – not just as the dominant news source, but one that is a high-quality news source,” says Charlie Beckett, a former senior BBC producer who is the director of POLIS, a think tank at the London School of Economics for research and debate into international journalism and society.

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