Published October 25, 2012
The number of people who may have been molested as children by a once-beloved and knighted BBC television personality now tops 300, as the venerable British publicly-funded media organization reels from accusations it covered up a decades-long scandal.
The ongoing revelations about presenter Jimmy Savile -- who died last year at 84 -- have shaken the foundation of the broadcaster, and could follow top executive Mark Thompson across the Atlantic to The New York Times, where he has been named chief executive. The sheer tally of people who have come forward and been interviewed by Scotland Yard, together with efforts by the BBC to spike an expose on Savile, has left the nation wondering who at the BBC knew what and when did they know it.
“There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved … will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us,” BBC Director General George Entwistle told Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee earlier this week. “This is gravely serious matter and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror.”
Commander Peter Spindler, leader of the Scotland Yard inquiry, said Savile was "undoubtedly" one of the most prolific sex offenders in recent British history.
"I have no doubt that we are in a watershed moment for child abuse investigations," said Spindler, who also disclosed for the first time that a retired London police officer contacted Scotland Yard to confirm that he investigated Savile in the 1980s after a young woman said he attacked her inside his trailer on BBC premises. The ex-officer had explained there hadn't been sufficient evidence to prosecute Savile at the time, Spindler said.
London police have received three times the typical number of calls about allegations of past abuse since the accusation aired on British television earlier this month. The NSPCC, a leading British children's charity, said it had received 60 percent more calls about abuse cases.
Entwistle told members of Parliament the network faces a "very grave" crisis, and acknowledged that more BBC employees may have been involved in the scandal. Entwistle said the BBC is probing allegations of sexual abuse or harassment against “between eight and 10” former and current employees as it investigates whether Savile, who was knighted in 1990 for charitable fundraising, was at the center of a wider pedophile ring within the network.
The BBC has been criticized for not stopping the abuse and for failing to air a “Newsnight” expose on Savile at the last minute in December, just months after his death from pneumonia. The allegations were later broadcast by the network’s rival, ITV. Entwistle’s testimony came just one day after the BBC aired a television documentary about the corporation’s role in the expanding sex abuse scandal. The documentary, which was watched by more than 5 million viewers, depicted BBC journalists questioning their bosses as to why the piece had been dropped at the last moment. The head of BBC’s “Newsnight” program, Peter Rippon, has left his position pending a probe of his decision to kill the Savile expose.
The British lawmakers’ committee also may seek to question Rippon’s predecessor, Thompson, who led the organization from 2004-2012 and was hired by the Times in August, slated to take the helm next month. He told the paper this week he did nothing wrong regarding Savile while he ran the BBC.
"There is nothing to suggest that I acted inappropriately in the handling of this matter," Thompson said. "I did not impede or stop the ‘Newsnight’ investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable.”
Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, called on the paper to vigorously investigate Thompson's claim.
"His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly," Sullivan wrote in her blog Wednesday. "It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."
Savile, the youngest of seven children, was a talented disc jockey who hosted BBC’s “Jim’ll Fix It” television show and “Top of the Pops” music program. He was widely known for his yodeling and outrageous outfits prior to the ITV report earlier this month that led to his family removing and destroying his gravestone. Two charities named after Savile have also announced they will close. State prosecutors have acknowledged that they probed four abuse allegations against Savile in 2009 but declined to press charges.
The BBC’s “Panorama” program reported on the abuse allegations on Monday, as well as the decision by “Newsnight” last year to drop its probe into the claims. Entwistle, after seeing his network’s broadcast on the matter, said he believed the “Newsnight” investigation should have been allowed to proceed.
"I came away from Panorama firmly of the view that that investigation, even if in the judgment of the editor it wasn't ready for transmission at the point he was looking at it, should have been allowed to continue," he told the lawmakers, according to BBC.
Asked whether BBC management pressured “Newsnight” to drop its Savile investigation, Entwistle denied any coverup involving one of the corporation's biggest former stars.
BBC employees, Entwistle said, now “know where to go” with sexual harassment complaints.
"I'm not sure in the '60s and '70s ... they would have felt there was anything they could do," he said. "I believe the culture has changed at the BBC, but I am not convinced that it has changed as much as it should have."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.