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BBC lawyers thought ‘pool of names’ linked to sex abuse claims online large enough to make Newsnight libel risk low

By Darren Boyle

BBC lawyers told Newsnight there was a “low” risk of identifying Lord McAlpine as an unnamed politician said to be involved in child abuse because the pool of names people could look for online was too large.

An Ofcom investigation into the broadcast discovered a catalogue of failures which led to the peer being wrongly connected to a paedophilia ring.

The BBC paid £185,000 in damages to McAlpine following the broadcast in November 2012 which led to the resignation of director-general George Entwistle. The BBC also paid McAlpine’s legal fees of £117,000.

According to the Ofcom report released today: “The BBC said that the legal advice, which was directed to the issue of defamation, was that, as the report identified no individual, the risk involved in transmitting it remained low. It said that the advice was given on the basis that the pool of people being mentioned on online social media forums was big enough to avoid any individual being identified.”

The BBC told Ofcom that an acting editor had been aware of 10 names on the internet and decided not to contact McApine because no individual was being named during the broadcast.

However, the day the show was due to be broadcast Channel 4 political correspondent MIchael Crick tweeted that the person at the centre of the story had not been contacted by the BBC and denied the allegations.

The Corporation admitted to Ofcom it should have contacted McAlpine prior to the broadcast “as part of due journalistic effort to validate the story”.

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The report said: “Ofcom has concluded that the programme broadcast significant allegations which turned out to be wholly untrue, without adequate research and due diligence in checking the truth of them, and without offering the subject of the allegations the opportunity to respond, the broadcast of the programme resulted in significant unfairness to Lord McAlpine. There is no doubt that allegations of child sex abuse are extremely serious, with potentially very serious consequences for those accused.”

In a statement on the treatment of McAlpine by both the BBC and ITV Ofcom said: “In-depth investigations were conducted into the fairness issues raised by the broadcast of a BBC Newsnight report on child sex abuse allegations and by the broadcast of a list of names of individuals alleged to be linked to child sex abuse on ITV’s This Morning. Both programmes included significant allegations about Lord McAlpine, which turned out to be wholly untrue.

“Ofcom has concluded that both programmes failed to conduct adequate research and neglected to offer Lord McAlpine the opportunity to respond. Both programmes therefore resulted in significant unfairness to Lord McAlpine.

“Separately, Ofcom has also ruled that ITV failed in its obligation to ensure that generally accepted standards were applied and did not provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion of harmful material.”

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