LONDON — The BBC struggled Monday to contain a spreading crisis over its reporting of a decades-old sexual abuse scandal as two senior executives withdrew temporarily from their jobs following the resignation of the corporation’s director-general in the worst setback to the public broadcaster’s status, prestige, and self-confidence in years.
The BBC’s website said its director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, had ‘‘stepped aside,’’ the latest moves since flagship current affairs program ‘‘Newsnight’’ wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician in accusations of sexual abuse at a children’s home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.
The BBC management said that while neither Boaden nor Mitchell ‘‘had anything at all to do with the failed ‘Newsnight’ investigation’’ of the politician, Alistair McAlpine, it ‘‘believes there is a lack of clarity in the lines of command and control in BBC News’’ because of an inquiry into a separate ‘‘Newsnight’’ debacle — the cancellation of a program a year ago into allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a longtime BBC television host who died last year at age 84.
The BBC said the two executives would step aside until the end of that investigation, which is being conducted by Nick Pollard, a former head of the rival Sky News. The BBC said its head of newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, and Ceri Thomas, the editor of the ‘‘Today’’ current affairs radio program, will fill in for the executives who stepped aside.
On Monday, British lawmakers, politicians, and newspapers focused on a decision by the BBC Trust to authorize a payment to the former director-general, George Entwistle, equivalent to one year’s salary of around $750,000. The BBC justified the payment by saying Entwistle would continue to help with various inquiries into the scandals at the BBC. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office challenged the payoff to Entwistle as ‘‘hard to justify’’ but sent a political signal rebutting calls for the chairman of the supervisory BBC Trust, Lord Chris Patten, to step down.
Tim Davie, 45, an executive with a background in marketing who is director of the BBC’s radio operations, will serve as the acting director-general. In a videotaped interview posted by the BBC, Davie also said he would take a short period to deliberate. ‘‘I’ve just got into the job,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m going to take a bit of time to look through the recommendations, and then we’ll take the disciplinary process through and be fair to those individuals.’’ He added: ‘‘The BBC has lost a director-general in this process. That in itself is very significant and he has taken responsibility.’’
The latest debacle has compounded the problems facing the network since accusations last month against Savile, who was suspected of having sexually abused as many as 300 young people. Critics have accused the BBC of covering up the abuse by canceling a ‘‘Newsnight’’ report on the accusations against him in December. Entwistle has said that he was not informed beforehand of the nature of the ‘‘Newsnight’’ investigation or the reasons for its cancellation.
At that time, Entwistle was in charge of all the BBC’s television productions and was seeking to succeed Mark Thompson as director-general.
Thompson stepped down in September after accepting an offer to become president and chief executive of The New York Times Co., a post he took up Monday. He has said he knew nothing beforehand about the ‘‘Newsnight’’ investigation of Savile or the decision to scrap it.