The reputation of the former children’s-TV host Jimmy Savile plummeted after a number of women came forward to recount their childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the knighted British icon. But the scandal has also besmeared the reputation of another national treasure — Savile’s employer, the British Broadcasting Corporation.
A BBC radio and television personality for more than 50 years, Savile was widely revered as an offbeat character with a soft spot for children’s charities. Yet in late 2011, shortly after Savile’s death at age 84, the BBC’s hard-hitting current-affairs show Newsnight began working on an exposé of the former employee. Producers for the program had found 10 women who reported being sexually assaulted by Savile when they were young girls. Yet the program never aired and the BBC went ahead with glowing tribute specials of Savile instead. Less than a year later, on Oct. 3, another British television channel aired a documentary revealing similar accusations. It was subsequently revealed that Savile came in contact with his victims through his BBC shows, as well as his charity work in hospitals. (Particularly disturbing accounts of abuse even took place in Savile’s dressing room.) It didn’t take long for the British media to fire questions at the publicly funded BBC over their lack of scrutiny during Savile’s tenure, as well as the never-aired investigation. Meanwhile, a substantial police investigation has been launched, which is currently following over 400 different lines of inquiry, and an investigation into the National Health Service.
The day before the documentary aired, Newsnight editor Peter Rippon denied in a BBC blog post that his decision to axe the exposé had anything to do with a cover-up or was the result of pressure from BBC executives — he claimed there was simply a lack of evidence. Yet after a follow-up documentary by another BBC news program, set to air Monday evening, uncovered a series of e-mails between Rippon and other BBC employees, Rippon’s apparent pivot on the story has roused suspicion even from within the company. A subsequent blog post from BBC editors claimed that Rippon’s earlier justification was “inaccurate or incomplete in some respects.” After the corporation announced on Monday that Rippon would be temporarily standing aside as investigations were pursued, Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement saying that “the BBC has effectively changed its story about why it dropped the Newsnight program about Jimmy Savile.”
What’s more, BBC director general George Entwistle is readying himself to appear before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday to face questions over the corporation’s actions over Savile. While Entwistle, who only stepped into his latest role at the BBC this September, was able to dodge questions from the press on Monday over the scandal, he won’t have such a luxury when facing MPs. This is, after all, the same committee that summoned Rupert Murdoch in 2010 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that rocked the British tabloid News of the World — and ultimately led to the paper’s demise. While Britain has certainly become accustomed to media scandals over recent years, the BBC has often found itself out of the fray of accusations of cover-ups and unethical behavior. Yet the Savile scandal — and the alleged cover-up by the BBC — seems to have touched a nerve in the public in a way that the phone-hacking scandal did not.
It’s been suggested that throughout much of his time at the world’s most trusted broadcaster, whispers about Savile’s criminal predilection for young girls, sometimes as young as 10, according to emerging accounts, were widely heard throughout the halls of the Beeb. And as an increasing number of women have come forward to accuse Savile of raping, molesting or sexually abusing them when they were children or young teenagers — the number of victims is now believed to be as high as 200 — the wake of the scandal continues to widen. Though he can never be prosecuted for his crimes, it’s already clear that the scandal has (rightly) destroyed Savile’s once golden reputation. How the BBC’s reputation will fare, however, is still in question.