Harman: The enemies of the BBC are circling

Harriet Harman went out on a limb to defend the BBC today, amid a crisis of confidence at the institution in the wake of George Entwistle's resignation.

The shadow media secretary used an urgent question in the Commons to criticise Newsnight for its erroneous report on Lord McAlpine and the pay off of the director general, but then warned there were "dangers" in the heat of the crisis.

"The next victim of this crisis must not be the independence of the BBC," she said

"The BBC is a much loved institution but it has enemies in this House.

"Will she [media secretary Maria Millar] stand up against commercial competitors who are lining up to attack and wound the BBC at this moment of crisis?"

The comments came amid an extenstive expression of support for the BBC from Labour MPs, during one of the darkest days of its recent history.

"This should not be used to undermine the basis of public broadcasting," David Lammy said.

Tory MP Mark Pritchard insisted many politicians on the Conservative benches also "loved the BBC".

The Commons session came as the director and deputy director of BBC News were told to "stand aside" in a bid by the acting boss of the corporation to draw a line under the multiple scandals hitting the institution.

There were frantic scenes at the corporation as Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell became the victims of continued anger over Newsnight's failure to report allegations against Savile.

But the move, which pre-empts Nick Pollard's investigation, is likely to anger many at the BBC and it is understood it will be challenged by the pair.

Tim Davie – the acting director general following the dramatic resignation of George Entwistle this weekend – will ask Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering, and Ceri Thomas, editor of the Today programme, to replace the pair.

He is soon expected to reveal the report by Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, into Newsnight's erroneous allegations against Lord McAlpine earlier this month.

"The first decision I made is to get a grip and rebuild trust by putting in a clear line of command," he said.

"The BBC needs strong leadership. That's what I want to bring."

As the announcements were made, the prime minister's spokesman offered stark words of warning to the corporation.

"It's clear that the last few weeks have affected the credibility of that organisation," he said.

"The important thing is for [BBC Trust chairman] Chris Patten to lead the BBC out of its present difficulties."

Iain Overton, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which worked with Newsnight on the McAlpine story, also resigned today.

The organisation tweeted: "An inquiry to establish the role of the bureau in the story is in urgent progress. An interim report will be issued as soon as possible."

The moves against Boaden and Mitchell are particularly controversial because they were not directly involved in the Savile decisions. Many in the corporation are thought to believe that Newsnight's McAlpine programme would not have run if they were involved.

In a separate development, McAlpine himself looked set to take some of his Twitter accusers to court, after it emerged legal action could take place against people who mentioned him on the social networking site.

The peer's legal team, led by Tory front bencher Edward Garnier, could take action against the wife of the Speaker, Sally Bercow, and leading Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who both mentioned him online.

"Yes, I have apologised for McAlpine tweet in which I noted that his name was trending (which, at the time, it was). I was irresponsible," Bercow wrote today.

"I have not heard from McAlpine's lawyers. Tho' I may do. As may thousands of Twitter users, some of whom tweeted far worse.

"Very sorry. Was irresponsible & mischievous. Libellous? I don't think so. But we'll have to see."

Today's developments come after Entwistle's resignation late on Saturday night, which was prompted by Newsnight's apology to Lord McAlpine.

Patten is currently on the search for a successor, with reports suggesting he is tapping up former BBC chief operating officer Caroline Thomson or Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards.

Question Time presenter David Dimbleby appeared on the Today programme this morning and instantly became a fan favourite for the post with a passionate defence of public service broadcasting combined with a savage attack on the management culture at the corporation.

"The BBC is still world's greatest broadcaster but what it has is a crisis of management of its own making," he said.

"In my opinion BBC is still over managed and management speak gobbledegook. It's gone bonkers."

The BBC was also under fire this morning for the size of George Entwistle's pay-off. He will receive a full year's salary of £450,000 after less than two months in the job.

Entwistle's contract entitles him only to six months pay, but the full year payment is ostensibly a reflection of his continued involvement in the various BBC inquiries set up over the Savile and McAlpine affairs.

Some have suggested the pay-off means Entwistle was forced out rather than going willingly.