BBC under pressure over Savile scandal

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00

LONDON – Pressure on the BBC to address allegations that its senior executives covered up sexual abuse claims levelled at former DJ Jimmy Savile mounted yesterday after British prime minister David Cameron said the broadcaster had serious questions to answer.

Mr Cameron’s intervention came as the editor of the flagship Newsnight programme stepped aside after admitting he had given an “inaccurate” account of why the BBC had axed its own exposé of the alleged abuse of underage girls by Savile.

“These are serious questions. They need to be answered,” Mr Cameron said of the cover-up allegations.

The scandal has engulfed the BBC at a time when it remains under pressure from its critics – which include much of the conservative media – who have queried whether it should still be funded via an annual licence fee paid by the public.

Critics, most notably media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s son James, have said the licence fee gives the BBC an unfair edge over private competitors. The corporation is already cutting its workforce and output after the government imposed deep spending cuts. Any loss of public trust could prove an issue in future discussions over funding and the licence fee.

Savile, who died last year, was one of the most recognised TV personalities on British television in the 1970s and 1980s, hosting prime-time children’s and pop shows.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his charity work and famous for his garish outfits and long blonde hair, he is now accused of raping and abusing girls as young as 12, some on BBC premises at the height of his fame.

Critics argue that the BBC covered up his alleged crimes, which police say took place over six decades and were on an “unprecedented scale”.

“The developments today are concerning because the BBC has effectively changed its story about why it dropped the Newsnight programme about Jimmy Savile,” said Mr Cameron when asked about the issue.

Veteran BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson said the organisation’s handling of the case was the worst crisis to hit the corporation in his almost 50-year career. “I don’t think the BBC has handled it terribly well,” he told the Panorama programme in clips released by the BBC.

“All we have as an organisation is the trust of people, the people that watch us and listen to us and if we don’t have that, if we start to lose that, that’s very dangerous.”

The imbroglio has piled pressure on new BBC chief George Entwistle to explain what happened.

Mr Entwistle will appear before parliament today amid a growing media clamour for answers.

The claims about Savile were first aired on ITV at the end of September but the BBC faced embarrassment when it later emerged that its own programme, Newsnight, had carried out an investigation into Savile last year but had not broadcast its findings.

Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who stood aside yesterday, wrote in his blog that the decision to drop the programme was made for editorial reasons, and that the investigation had only focused on possible institutional failings by police and prosecutors.

But those reasons have been publicly disputed by the show’s journalists and Mr Rippon stood down to allow an independent inquiry to try to establish the truth.

The BBC conceded that Mr Rippon’s explanation was flawed. “The explanation by the editor in his blog of his decision to drop the programme’s investigation is inaccurate or incomplete in some respects,” it said in a statement.

The inaccuracies referred to have fuelled suspicions that BBC chiefs pulled the Newsnight investigation because they did not want it to clash with planned programmes over Christmas commemorating Savile’s life as a TV celebrity and charity fundraiser.

Another BBC documentary show, Panorama, due to air in Britain last night, was expected to give details of how much information the Newsnight team had on Savile at the time their investigation was shelved.

Meirion Jones, the producer behind the Newsnight story, told Panorama he had warned his editor that the BBC was at risk of being accused of a cover-up if it did not run the story. – (Reuters)