LONDON, United Kingdom – The head of the BBC defended on Tuesday, October 23, the broadcaster’s response to allegations of sex abuse by late TV star Jimmy Savile before British lawmakers, but admitted its reputation had taken a hit.
Director General George Entwistle said the world’s biggest public broadcaster regretted dropping a television probe into allegations of widespread abuse of underage girls by Savile.
But Entwistle, who only took over the position this summer, denied that pressure from BBC top brass had forced flagship current affairs television show “Newsnight” to shelve its investigation late last year.
“There is no question in my mind this is a very grave matter indeed,” Entwistle told parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
“One cannot look back on it with anything other than horror.”
Savile, a DJ who rose to become one of the biggest and most distinctive personalities of BBC television from the 1960s until the 1980s, died last October aged 84.
Two weeks ago the BBC’s commercial rival ITV aired allegations by several women about the entertainer, who was known for his shiny tracksuits, gold jewelery and ever-present cigar.
Newsnight editor Peter Rippon announced Monday, October 22, that he was “stepping aside” while the BBC carries out an inquiry into why the Savile item was axed.
Entwistle, himself under pressure because he decided to proceed with tribute shows about Savile over Christmas, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the “Newsnight” investigation should not have been dropped.
He admitted that the BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, had told him about the Newsnight investigation in December last year: he did not pursue it because he did not want to be seen as wielding editorial influence, he said.
Committee chairman John Whittingdale accused Entwistle of showing an “extraordinary lack of curiosity” by not asking exactly what claims the Newsnight team were investigating.
But Entwistle said Rippon had decided to cancel the investigation “on his own account”.
“I’ve been able to find no evidence… that any kind of managerial pressure was applied,” he told lawmakers.
The director general said he had asked Rippon to step aside because of inaccuracies in a blog post the Newsnight editor had written this month explaining his decision to shelve the Savile investigation.
‘Questions of trust’
Entwistle conceded that the affair would “raise questions of trust” in the BBC. But he defended the BBC’s reaction to the scandal, insisting the organization was working closely with the police and that its own twin internal probes would thoroughly investigate what happened.
He also said the BBC should be “incredibly proud” of its decision to air a special episode of its main investigative television show “Panorama” dealing with the Savile scandal on Monday night.
The show included an interview with a lawyer for some of Savile’s alleged victims, who said there was evidence of a pedophile ring operating within the BBC during the star’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
The BBC is investigating up to 10 “serious allegations” involving past and present employees, he added.
He insisted the BBC has much stronger procedures in place for dealing with sexual harassment and child protection than it did in the 1960s.
Entwistle emerged from the hearing into a scrum of journalists — including a BBC reporter who asked if he would be resigning.
Prime Minister David Cameron expressed concern Monday over the BBC’s handling of sex abuse claims against Savile, accusing the BBC of “changing its story.”
Entwistle, 50, himself a former “Newsnight” editor, has been the BBC’s director general only since July.
Some lawmakers are calling for his predecessor Mark Thompson, who is due to start as chief executive of The New York Times in November, to face a similar grilling in parliament.
Thompson has indicated in a letter to one British lawmaker that he would “very happy to attend,” the Guardian newspaper reported.
In a brief comment Monday, he said he had not been involved in the decision about the “Newsnight” program.
British police have launched a separate criminal investigation into the alleged abuse by Savile.
Scotland Yard says it believes there may have been as many as 200 victims, and that it is investigating suspects linked to Savile who are still alive. – Katy Lee, Agence France-Presse