Jimmy Savile

BBC chief denies pulling Newsnight show to cover up Savile sex scandal

Director general denies involvement in cancellation of Newsnight documentary investigating child-sex claims against Jimmy Savile

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 4:31am

The head of the BBC yesterday denied helping to cover up a sex scandal involving one of its former stars, but accepted the British broadcaster had been damaged by a crisis that has shaken public trust in the national institution.

George Entwistle, who took charge at the 90-year-old media organisation in August, told hostile lawmakers that failures at the BBC had allowed Jimmy Savile, once one of Britain's top television presenters, to prey on young girls for years.

He added he could not rule out suggestions that a paedophile ring might have existed at the state-funded BBC during the height of Savile's fame in the 1970s and '80s. But Entwistle rejected claims that BBC bosses had tried to hide allegations against Savile, who died last year, or suppressed an inquiry by one of their own news programmes.

"This is a gravely serious matter and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror," Entwistle told Parliament's Culture and Media Committee. "There is no question that … the BBC seemed to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did, [which] will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us."

Police are investigating allegations that Savile abused girls as young as 12 over six decades, with some of the attacks having taken place on BBC premises. Detectives announced a criminal inquiry into the claims on Friday, saying more than 200 potential victims had come forward.

The BBC has been under growing pressure since rival channel ITV exposed Savile's alleged crimes three weeks ago.

The most damaging aspect for Entwistle and senior managers was the accusation that a similar inquiry by the BBC's flagship Newsnight show was pulled a couple of months after Savile's death in October last year because it would have clashed with planned Christmas programmes celebrating the former DJs life and charity work.

Entwistle's predecessor as the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, has also said he did not know about the content of the Newsnight investigation.

Newsnight editor Peter Rippon stepped aside after the BBC said his explanation for shelving the story was "inaccurate or incomplete", and Entwistle said Rippon had been wrong not to broadcast the report.

"I've been able to find no evidence whatsoever in the conversations I've had, and in the documents we've now pulled together, that any kind of managerial pressure to drop the investigation was applied," Entwistle said.

At the time of the Newsnight inquiry, Entwistle was in charge of BBC television's commissioning and programming, and admitted the head of news had briefly told him about it in December and that he might have to change the Christmas schedules, which included Savile tributes.

His failure to ask more questions about the Newsnight inquiry was ridiculed by some of the lawmakers, with one saying he showed a lamentable lack of knowledge.

Seeking to quell the growing uproar, the BBC broadcast a highly critical examination of its own mishandling of the sexual abuse allegations on Monday.

Previous BBC associates of Savile who appeared on the Panorama programme spoke of their suspicions about him - even of him seemingly boasting about what he had done - and of their failure to expose him.

Bob Langley, a former reporter who covered a charity run in which Savile participated, said he saw girls of "12 or 13, they could have been 14" emerging from Savile's trailer at the event.

"After they had gone he indicated to me in a nudge, nudge, wink, wink sort of way that he had just had sex with them," Langley said. "Supposing I had gone to the police or to the BBC, what would have happened?

"The answer is nothing would have happened. He would have said, 'It was a joke, can't you take a joke.' And that would have been it," Langley added.

John Simpson, a veteran foreign correspondent, told the programme that it was the "worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC".

Additional reporting by The New York Times