LONDON –- The head of the scandal-hit BBC said Tuesday that the broadcaster is investigating allegations of sexual abuse or harassment against several of its staff members, apart from recent revelations about a popular children’s show host who may have molested scores of young girls over decades.
Under pointed questioning by members of Parliament, Director General George Entwistle acknowledged that the British Broadcasting Corp.’s reputation and integrity have been badly undermined by the snowballing scandal over the late Jimmy Savile, the star presenter now suspected of having been a serial child molester.
“This is a gravely serious matter,” Entwistle said, “and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror.”
He also said that a BBC news program’s probe into accusations against Savile should not have been shelved by a senior editor who considered the story too weak. That editor was forced to step down Monday pending the outcome of an independent inquiry into why the investigation was called off weeks before the segment was to be broadcast late last year, around the same time that the BBC aired glowing tributes to Savile, who had died a couple of months before.
The affair has precipitated one of the worst crises in recent memory for the BBC, an institution whose influence on British public life is hard to overstate.
Entwistle’s uncomfortable two-hour appearance Tuesday before a parliamentary committee came as more alleged victims continued to step forward with shocking accounts of having been groped or assaulted by Savile, sometimes on BBC premises.
Once a national hero who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to society, Savile is now increasingly being seen as a ruthless sexual predator who used his fame and work on behalf of children’s charities to gain access to unwitting minors, mostly girls but some boys as well.
Some of the alleged victims have said that other BBC employees also sexually abused them, leading lawmaker Philip Davies to go so far as to ask Entwistle whether “there was sort of a pedophile ring at the BBC.”
Entwistle, who took over the BBC’s top job last month, said it was premature to conclude that sexual misconduct at the broadcaster was “endemic.” But he conceded that a “broader cultural problem” must have existed within the BBC, particularly during the 1970s and ’80s, for Savile to have allegedly molested so many youngsters without others taking notice or reporting it.
Entwistle told lawmakers that “between eight and 10” current and former workers at the BBC, which employs about 20,000 people, were under investigation for alleged sexual harassment or abuse. BBC officials later issued a statement saying that nine current staff members or contributors were under investigation.
Some of the harshest grilling centered on the decision late last year to cancel an investigation by the BBC program “Newsnight” into Savile’s alleged crimes.
Entwistle denied that any top managers pressured “Newsnight’s” editor into pulling the segment because they were determined to go ahead with already-planned tributes to Savile, who died in October 2011 at the age of 84.
The editor, Peter Rippon, has said that he decided to ax the program because the evidence of wrongdoing by Savile seemed weak.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: BBC Director General George Entwistle makes a statement to the media Tuesday after giving evidence to the Commons Culture Committee on the BBC's response to the Jimmy Savile affair in London. Credit: Andrew Cowie / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.