British Broadcasting Corp. Director General George Entwistle said today that he didn’t follow up on warnings that TV star Jimmy Savile was being investigated for sexual abuse by one of the broadcaster’s programs.
He was protecting journalists’ independence when he declined to act on News Director Helen Boaden’s tip that the “Newsnight” investigation would interfere with Christmas tributes to the late entertainer, Entwistle said at a parliamentary hearing today.
His hands-off approach drew criticism from politicians, including Labour lawmaker Paul Farrelly, who said Entwistle is “starting to sound like James Murdoch,” referring to News Corp.’s deputy operating chief who last year said he failed to follow up on phone-hacking allegations at British newspapers.
Farrelly also criticized Entwistle’s “lamentable lack of knowledge” when he was unable to give data for historical sexual harassment complaints at the BBC, deferring to the broadcaster’s current investigations.
The BBC is under pressure for honoring Savile when its own “Newsnight” program was probing the child abuse allegations. Murdoch and his father, News Corp. Chief Executive Officer Rupert Murdoch, told the same committee last year that they had relied on managers and police investigations to reassure them that hacking wasn’t widespread instead of mounting their own probes.
“I didn’t seek further information and obviously this is something I reflected on a lot,” Entwistle told the committee probing the BBC’s response to revelations that Savile, who fronted programs including “Jim’ll Fix It,” may have abused scores of children. Entwistle said that he was afraid “excessive interest” could be construed as pressure on journalists.
Boaden mentioned the program at a lunch on Dec. 2 and the executive said she would let him know if the story was going to go ahead, Entwistle told the U.K. Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee today. He never heard back and assumed there wasn’t enough evidence to run a story, Entwistle said.
Entwistle was managing the broadcaster’s television channels when the “Newsnight” probe was dropped and he became director general this year. The previous director general, Mark Thompson, is scheduled to start as New York Times Co. (NYT:US)’s chief executive officer next month.
Thompson also denied any knowledge of the Savile scandal in a letter to lawmaker Rob Wilson today. Thompson said that he was never formally briefed about the planned “Newsnight” program and only heard about the story from a journalist at a reception. Thompson, whose career at the BBC spanned three decades, said he didn’t know about the planned tributes to Savile and had never met the entertainer or worked in his departments.
London police said last week they’re dealing with alleged abuse on an unprecedented scale. Savile, who was knighted for charity work in 1990, fronted programs including “Jim’ll Fix It,” which granted children wishes such as meeting celebrities. The entertainer, a friend of Prince Charles who stayed at Margaret Thatcher’s country home when she was prime minister, died in October last year at the age of 84.
“Jim’ll Fix It”
Entwistle said he asked “Newsnight” editor Peter Rippon to step aside after the broadcaster yesterday corrected the journalist’s previous explanation on a blog for why he dropped the investigation into Savile. Entwistle said it was a “catastrophic mistake” to cancel the “Newsnight” segment and he regrets airing the tributes.
Asked whether Entwistle should resign, Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday “I don’t think it’s a question of that at this stage.” He added that the BBC needs to ask itself “some very searching questions.”
While Rippon’s blog said the “Newsnight” report had no evidence against the BBC, there were some allegations of abusive conduct on the broadcaster’s premises, the company said. Staff at the Duncroft school for girls, where Savile volunteered, may have also known about abuse, contrary to Rippon’s earlier statement, the BBC said.
Rippon also said the investigation didn’t uncover new evidence that would’ve helped police. The BBC yesterday said that law enforcement may not have been aware of all of the allegations. Entwistle said today that the BBC will decide on any potential disciplinary action against Rippon after a review.
The BBC last week appointed former Court of Appeal Judge Janet Smith and journalist Nick Pollard to head two internal investigations, one into the abuse allegations and another into why “Newsnight” canceled its investigation of Savile.
Alongside the BBC probes, the state-run National Health Service has set up investigations into allegations of abuse by Savile at two hospitals and a high-security unit for psychiatric patients.
The BBC is now also investigating whether the entertainer had accomplices after the company’s “Panorama” program claimed that a group of men targeted underage girls in television audiences of Savile’s “Top of the Pops” program.
“A pedophile ring would be a matter for police investigation,” Entwistle said. “That’s an allegation I’ve seen in last few days. We’re putting our resources at the disposal of the police.”
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