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Scandal-scarred BBC staggers toward an uncertain future

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The venerable news organization was rocked by a scandal involving accused pedophile Jimmy Savile (l.), and the recent resignation of CEO George Entwistle, who received a huge severance check after just 54 days on the job. (AP photos)

Politicians, pundits and the public alike are bickering in the United Kingdom about how best to break the stunning fall from grace of the venerable BBC.

The publicly-funded media organization has been dogged by charges of pedophilia, coverups, huge payouts to bungling executives and the long-standing claims of left-wing bias in recent months. But unlike private-sector news outlets touched by scandal, the BBC -- funded by TV viewers and regulated by the government -- is everyone's problem. And everyone seems to have their own idea of how to fix it.

“The worst thing that could happen would be if the government jumped in and started meddling in the management of the BBC,” said Jessica Asato, a prospective parliamentary candidate and vice-chair of the left-leaning Fabian Society. “We need the BBC to push the commercial sector to have higher standards. Without it, there will simply be a dumbing down and falling standards.”

“The worst thing that could happen would be if the government jumped in and started meddling in the management of the BBC.”

- Jessica Asato, parliamentary candidate

It's hard to imagine standards falling further. The BBC has been rocked by revelations one of its most famous TV personalities, Jimmy Savile, molested as many as 300 children before his death last year at age 84. The boss accused of helping to cover up the stomach-turning saga, Mark Thompson, left as the situation was blowing up for the U.S., where he now runs The New York Times.

Thompson’s replacement, George Entwistle, resigned last week with a $715,000 severance package after just 54 days on the job, following the organization's wrongful accusation that powerful Conservative Party operative Lord McAlpine sexually abused children. The juxtaposition of ignoring a monster in its own midst and then falsely accusing a Tory of similar charges was not lost on Brits who have long considered the BBC to be left-leaning.

For now, a trust chaired by former Conservative Party chairman and Hong Kong governor Chris Patten oversees the corporation, which is funded by the public through “licensing fees” that owners of TV sets pay. 

Critics say Prime Minister David Cameron’s appointment of Patten underscores the BBC’s fundamental problem: If it had a truly independent management, the BBC would not find itself being kicked around as a political football, they say.

Writing in the right-wing Daily Telegraph, former Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell proposes shifting the BBC’s management to a ‘mutual,’ where license fee payers could be voted onto a board of directors.

Patten, who has pledged to restore confidence and trust in the BBC, has faced calls from both Labor and Tory politicians to quit over the scandal. But for now, he is staying put.

"My job is to make sure that ... we restore confidence and trust in the BBC," he said, and called for a "thorough, radical structural overhaul."

The BBC’s fall from grace comes one year after a phone-hacking scandal which involved FoxNews.com's parent company, News Corp., brought down the nation's best-selling Sunday newspaper. In that scandal, Parliament and law enforcement showed no hesitation in demanding answers from news executives and arresting dozens of journalists. With the BBC now under fire, commercial rivals are calling for the corporation to be broken up or cut off from public funding. 

But supporters say only the public can help the BBC restore its reputation.

“The BBC doesn’t work in a commercial market,” Asato points out.  “If it didn’t exist, we would see failures in broadcasting as we see in other countries.”

But evidence of failures abound at the BBC. A recent tweet from Jeremy Paxman, the lead anchor of “Newsnight,” which has apologized for its report on McAlpine, blamed the scandal on "cowards and incompetents” and a management that slashed budgets while “bloating” its own ranks. Righting the ship, even as the top bosses are jumping off, is a national dilemma. And the odds are long of a solution coming from within a company that once ran a popular show called "Jim'll Fix It," hosted by a man Scotland Yard now calls "one of the most prolific sex offenders" the UK has ever seen.

David Nicholson is a London-based freelance journalist.