In a mad media weekend that saw BBC Director General George Entwistle fall on his sword, there were bound to be casualties at the Society of Editors’ annual conference in Belfast.
No-one was too surprised to learn that Francesca Unsworth, the SoE’s outgoing president, had decided that her main job as BBC Head of Newsgathering meant she “had to return to London to supervise her team covering the story”.
But far more interesting was the snippet contained in the 14th paragraph on page two of delegates’ ‘Additional Information’ sheet: “Iain Overton, editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is unavailable to attend and sends his apologies.”
Overton, of course, made the original, arrogant and flawed allegation on Twitter on 2 November that a BBC Newsnight package – put together by his Bureau – was about to unmask a paedophile.
As we all know, the programme’s claims that a senior Conservative politician had sexually abused children in the North Wales child abuse scandal turned out to be false.
The defamed politician, Lord Alistair McAlpine, was not named on Newsnight, but Overton’s Tweet and the shameful name game it triggered on Twitter meant the innocent peer was soon identified all over the Internet.
The gross error led to the honourable, if inevitable, resignation on Saturday of Entwistle after a cannibalistic monstering from John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
But while the BBC fell over itself with its customary self-flagellation for what Trust chairman Lord Patten called “unacceptable shoddy journalism”, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism remains frozen in the headlights.
At the time of writing, there had been no apology from the Bureau or Overton (apart from his “sorry” for not turning up to Belfast), nor any resignations by Overton or Bureau staff directly involved.
I had hoped that editors would get the chance to ‘do a Humphrys’ on Overton if he had dared to speak at the scheduled panel entitled ‘Keeping the investigative end up’ at the SoE tomorrow.
His absence may mean that he’s about to resign or be sacked for blatantly breaching his Bureau’s standards that include “fact-based journalism” and “the avoidance of sensationalism”; or perhaps he’s just keeping his head down.
Anyone who knows Dave Whaley, editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle, would have understood his increasing impatience at the formal SoE reception at City Hall, Belfast.
Good old Dave had donned his best suit as requested and stood there for hours sipping wine and chomping canapés, but could soon be heard suggesting to anyone nearby: “Shall we just sneak out and go to a pub?”
By 10pm Dave had escaped to The Crown, opposite the Europa hotel where the conference is taking place, and was happily supping Guinness with the likes of ex-MEN editor Paul Horrocks, new Coventry Telegraph editor Alun Thorne and NCTJ chief executive Joanne Butcher.
Imagine Dave’s Northern horror when, thanks to strange Belfast Sunday licensing laws, last orders were called and drinkers were politely but firmly chucked out at 10.15pm!
I think we were all very sad to read of D.C. Thomson’s decision to axe The Dandy comic earlier this year.
“Here comes Dennis the Menace,” another editor was heard to say.
Stop press, 9.15am, Monday 12 November:
As Francesca Unsworth welcomed SoE delegates in a pre-recorded video in her absence, news broke that she had been appointed as BBC’s acting Head of News.
One very senior editor commented: “Francesca is clean on the Newsnight front, and if the BBC continues to disappear up its own backside she could well become the next DG.”