Thursday, November 15, 2012 4:04 pm
BBC settles libel suit from wronged politician
By GREGORY KATZAssociated Press
The BBC has already apologized for linking 70-year-old Alistair McAlpine, a member of the House of Lords, to child sex abuse that happened decades ago in Wales. The mistaken report, broadcast nearly two weeks ago, has caused turmoil within BBC management ranks and led to the resignation of its chief.
The British broadcaster said late Thursday it had resolved McAlpine's libel claim, calling it a "comprehensive" settlement that "reflects the gravity of the allegations that were wrongly made."
The politician will receive 185,000 pounds ($293,200) in damages and the terms of the agreement will be announced in court in a few days, his lawyers told Britain's Press Association.
McAlpine said in a statement he was delighted to have reached a "quick and early" settlement and now will seek settlements from people who had named him on Twitter.
Earlier, he told BBC radio he had been shocked by the report, which did not directly name him but led to Internet chatter about his purported role. He said the BBC had not contacted him to try to verify the report before it was televised on its "Newsnight" program.
"They should have called me and I would have told them exactly what they learned later on - that it was complete rubbish," he said.
He expressed sympathy for the sex abuse victim who had mistakenly told BBC that McAlpine was the culprit, pointing out that the victim had suffered greatly because of the abuse.
The lawmaker seemed shaken by the accusations against him: "To find yourself a figure of public hatred, unjustifiably, is terrifying."
The BBC's crisis involving coverage of child sex abuse started last month when it was heavily criticized for deciding not to report allegations of shocking abuses committed by one of its top hosts, the late Jimmy Savile, who died last year at age 84.
New questions have been raised about the possible role in the Savile scandal of Mark Thompson, who was BBC director general until Sept. 16 and this week became chief executive officer of the New York Times Co.
Thompson has said he did not know about the allegations against Savile and was not involved in the decision to shelve a BBC documentary about the TV star's alleged abuses. Critics, however, say this claim is undermined by a legal letter written on Thompson's behalf in early September that advised the Sunday Times of London not to publish a story about the Savile allegations.
A lawyer who saw the letter and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality issues confirmed its contents.
Ed Williams, a spokesman for Thompson in London, said Thompson would not comment directly about the letter. Williams referred instead to comments that he himself had made to Stewart Purvis, a blogger and journalism professor with extensive experience in television news.
In an email to Purvis that was posted on the blog, Williams said it was a "common occurrence" for legal letters to be written at the BBC and reiterated that Thompson had not been aware of the allegation against Savile.
"He verbally agreed to the tactic of sending a legal letter to the paper, but was not involved in its drafting," Williams told Purvis.
Critics of Thompson's role in the Savile scandal found this unconvincing.
Rob Wilson, a Conservative Party lawmaker who has challenged Thompson's explanation, said the former BBC chief had not yet given a "definitive" account of his knowledge about the Savile allegations.
"Now it appears legal threats were issued using his name against a newspaper over claims that he hadn't bothered to read, let alone investigate, but which turned out to be true," Wilson said.
The Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, arrested a man in his 60s on Thursday in connection with the wide-ranging Savile investigation. A police statement said some 450 alleged victims have now come forward.
Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds, Jill Lawless and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.