Escalating allegations of child abuse by Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who became one of the most famous personalities at the British Broadcasting Corp., are forcing the U.K. establishment to answer for close ties to the star and explain why it took so long for complaints to surface.
Savile, a friend of Prince Charles who stayed at Margaret Thatcher’s country home when she was prime minister, died last year at the age of 84. A documentary by broadcaster ITV Plc (ITV) this month featured several women accusing the host of BBC’s “Top of the Pops” music show of sexual abuse when they were teens. Police are investigating claims dating back as far as 1959 through 2006, including those that Savile misused his status as a charity worker to abuse patients at hospitals.
The revelations are putting pressure on those who appointed the entertainer to programs and positions that dealt with children, creating a fresh British media scandal following the phone hacking by journalists at the U.K. newspapers of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (NWSA:US) The BBC, where Savile worked for more than 30 years, is investigating the claims as well as the role of executives such as former Director General Mark Thompson, scheduled to start as New York Times Co. (NYT:US)’s chief executive officer next month, in canceling an investigative program.
“This is a particularly ugly British scandal of enormous ramifications,” said Claire Enders, CEO of Enders Analysis, which advises clients including the U.K. government. “Like an express train, there will be other people caught up in this and it will go on for some time.”
Dozens of Victims
Savile, who was knighted for charity work in 1990, fronted programs including the BBC’s “Jim’ll Fix It,” which granted children wishes such as meeting celebrities. He ran more than 200 fundraising marathons and served as unofficial adviser to Prince Charles for years, according to a BBC obituary when Savile died in October 2011.
London’s Metropolitan police estimate that there are dozens of potential victims.
“We have received information from the public that suggest allegations against Jimmy Savile span six decades with reports starting in 1959 up to and including 2006,” said Commander Peter Spindler, the head of specialist crime investigations.
The BBC has said Thompson wasn’t involved in a decision to cancel an investigation into sexual abuse allegations against Savile.
Journalists for BBC’s “Newsnight” program in November 2011 started an investigation into claims that Savile, who had died a month earlier, sexually abused underage girls, the broadcaster said in a letter to U.K. lawmakers last week.
Thompson, who stepped down as BBC chief this year, and his successor George Entwistle had “no involvement in the investigation or the subsequent decision to drop it,” the broadcaster said. Entwistle managed the BBC’s television channels before he became director general.
Peter Rippon, the editor of the “Newsnight” show, has said that he ended the program’s investigation because Savile wasn’t able to defend himself and the level of proof wasn’t sufficient.
Savile worked on television and radio at the BBC starting in 1964 as a disc jockey and host of entertainment shows including “The Vintage Chart Show” on the BBC World Service.
Thompson, who ran the BBC from 2004 until resigning this year, also headed Channel Four Television Corp. from 2002 until 2004 and held different posts at BBC News prior to that time. He joined the BBC as a production trainee in 1979. Early in his career at the BBC, Thompson was stationed in the New York bureau where he met his wife, Jane Blumberg, a U.S. citizen and daughter of the late Nobel Prize laureate Baruch Blumberg.
The BBC said in an e-mailed statement that “Thompson was not directly involved with any of Jimmy Savile’s programming.” The New York Times declined to make Thompson available and to comment on the case.
“‘Newsnight’ is the only serious allegation Mark Thompson could face,” said Lis Howell, who teaches television journalism and is director of broadcasting at City University London.
The BBC, funded by a mandatory license fee, is now investigating the cancellation of the segment and will also look into the culture and practices of the BBC during the years that Jimmy Savile worked here, and afterwards.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the House of Commons in London today “there may be a case for an inquiry” that would be “independent and be able to look at the full range of the shocking revelations as they have come to light.”
Another recent British media scandal, which involved phone- hacking by journalists working for News Corp.’s newspaper unit, prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to set up a judge-led inquiry into media ethics that has also interviewed Rupert Murdoch and may recommend new rules for the U.K. media.
“The first priority must be to allow the police to conduct its work,” Clegg said. “In many ways the dark side of the cult of celebrity” may have inhibited people from speaking out, he said.
BBC chief Entwistle has been called to testify to the House of Commons Culture Committee on Oct. 23, the panel said today.
Savile’s charitable support for hospitals gained him unusual access to institutions including Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where “he stayed there so often he had his own suite,” according to the BBC. Savile was also appointed to oversee the Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospital in 1988.
“In hindsight he should very obviously not have been appointed,” the Department of Health said in a statement, adding it’s investigating Savile’s role.
“The allegations emerging around Jimmy Savile are absolutely horrifying,” U.K. Culture Secretary Maria Miller told the House of Commons in London yesterday.
When Savile died last year, it prompted members of the Royal family to offer their condolences with Prince Charles telling the BBC that he’s “saddened to hear of Jimmy Savile’s death.” A spokeswoman for Clarence House, the official residence of Prince Charles, declined to comment.
David Banks, a former editor of the Daily Mirror tabloid, said allegations against Savile aren’t new.
“Everybody was itching to write the true story of Savile, but when they tiptoed around the lawyers jumped in and the editors withdrew,” he said. “It was generally accepted that he was creepy but he became so big and so malleable for politicians to be photographed and to align themselves with.”
The situation, Banks said, is a “real disaster for the BBC” and not something ideal for Thompson’s resume heading to the New York Times.
Liz Dux, a lawyer representing at least 10 alleged victims, said she’s considering filing a civil group lawsuit against the BBC, a hospital and a children’s home.
The case follows the high-profile sex-abuse scandal in the U.S. of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was sentenced last week to 30 to 60 years in prison. Sandusky, who was convicted on 45 counts, met boys he abused through the Second Mile, a charity he founded for needy children.
Tom Watson, a Labour Party lawmaker who was on the parliamentary committee that investigated Murdoch’s U.K. newspapers over phone-hacking, said it’s too early to tell if the BBC is on the verge of a scandal of similar size.
“It is very, very serious for the BBC,” Watson said in an e-mail. “Without more detailed evidence I don’t think I can make the comparison to the hacking cover up -- yet.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kristen Schweizer in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kenneth Wong at email@example.com