The British Broadcasting Corp. may be weighed down for years by a wave of civil lawsuits and reputational damage resulting from allegations of decades of sexual abuse of children by former television star Jimmy Savile.
London police are probing allegations that Savile, who died last year at the age of 84, may have abused more than 300 people as early as 1959. Claims may reach the BBC’s highest ranks if there was a cover-up to save its reputation, said Mark Burden, a liability insurance director at Prime Professions Ltd.
“If there’s some systemic issue about the way the institution was being run, obviously the directors or officers who were there at the time could be held accountable,” Burden said in London. “From a reputational point of view, you just don’t know how that’s going to affect the business going forward. It could have significant consequences.”
The BBC, the world’s largest public broadcaster, is running internal probes and cooperating with police and lawmakers investigating the incidents. It seeks to avoid the type of damage that befell News Corp. (NWSA:US)’s U.K. publisher after civil lawsuits revealed that a phone-hacking conspiracy, with hundreds of victims, had been covered up for years by executives.
Savile’s alleged victims “deserve their day in court,” said Liz Dux, a lawyer at Russell Jones & Walker Solicitors, who is representing at least 10 people. Many of the potential claimants have said they told people years earlier about the abuse and “weren’t believed,” Dux said.
“The victims feel somewhat robbed, because he obviously cannot be prosecuted and cannot give evidence -- he’s not there to suffer the repercussions,” Dux said of Savile.
Previous attempts to investigate Savile failed. A woman called the Metropolitan Police in 2003 claiming Savile touched her inappropriately in the 1970s, though she didn’t file a complaint, Commander Peter Spindler said yesterday. Prosecutors who reviewed similar claims in 2007 didn’t press charges.
The scandal was brought to light in a documentary by broadcaster ITV Plc (ITV) this month that featured several women accusing the host of BBC’s “Top of the Pops” music show of sexual abuse when they were teens. Savile, who was knighted in 1990, also fronted “Jim’ll Fix It,” which granted children’s wishes, such as meeting celebrities.
Savile retained his popularity in Britain after the shows ended, using his fame to promote charity work that gave him access to children. A friend of Prince Charles who stayed at Margaret Thatcher’s country home when she was prime minister, Savile died a year ago this month, two days before his 85th birthday. The Guardian newspaper’s obituary described him as the “eccentric king of children’s TV.”
The BBC will probably be sued for negligence in failing to stop the TV star and may be forced to pay “hundreds of thousands of pounds” to each victim, said David Foster, a lawyer with Barlow Robbins LLP in Guildford, England, who isn’t involved in the cases.
“Proof will be an issue so long after the incidents have happened, so it won’t be easy for people to bring claims,” Foster said. Once filed, what “the BBC will try to say is ‘This chap was on a frolic of his own,’ and they couldn’t have done anything about it.”
In sex-abuse cases involving children, it’s common for victims to come forward only after years of silence, sometimes decades, said Alicia Alinia, a lawyer working with Dux. Many victims would have been “acutely aware” of Savile’s popularity and standing as a “national treasure,” she said.
“Unlike most civil claims, there is something quite different about someone who has been sexually abused -- it’s not about compensation,” Alinia said in an interview. “There’s a psychological barrier for most of these people, who’ve experienced deep trauma,” and it’s more difficult “when you think you’re the only one.”
The cases could involve claims of negligence and so-called vicarious liability, where the BBC would be accused in place of Savile for acts of negligence that caused harm, Alinia said. At issue will be who knew or ought to have known about circumstances that led to someone being hurt, she said.
One of the BBC’s internal inquiries involves the role of executives such as former Director General Mark Thompson, who is scheduled to start as New York Times Co. (NYT:US)’s chief executive officer next month, in canceling a BBC “Newsnight” investigative program into the Savile allegations last year.
Thompson’s successor, George Entwistle, told lawmakers this week that he failed to ask any questions after being warned Savile was the subject of the Newsnight probe that could interfere with tribute programs following the star’s death, saying he didn’t think it would be appropriate to interfere.
“Our main concern has to be for the victims of abuse and worse -- men as well as women, but mostly women -- who’ve been marooned for years trying to tell their stories and not being believed, including, it seems, to the BBC,” BBC Trust Chairman Chris Patten said in an interview yesterday on the BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “Secondly, we have to deal with the incredible damage to the reputation of the BBC.”
BBC Trust spokeswoman Hannah Murdoch declined to comment on potential suits, saying it may conflict with the internal investigations.
Potential lawsuits may also target institutions where Savile allegedly gained access to victims, including Leeds Royal Infirmary, Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Broadmore psychiatric hospital and a children’s home that can’t be identified for legal reasons, Dux said.
Lisa Potter, a spokeswoman for the National Health Service, which runs U.K. health-care institutions, didn’t immediately return a call for comment.
Under U.K. law, victims of child abuse must file civil claims within three years of turning 18. Since that deadline has expired for many victims, those who sue will need to seek court permission, and that may be difficult since Savile can’t defend himself, Dux said.
Dux hasn’t filed a lawsuit yet and said the timing of any litigation may depend on the police probe and whether it uncovers more victims.
Police in Surrey, England, probed claims in 2007 that the TV star abused a girl at a children’s home in the 1970s, and sent a file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service in 2009, the agency said in a statement on Oct. 22. CPS said it dropped the cases without charges due to insufficient evidence.
The BBC appointed former Court of Appeal Judge Janet Smith and former British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) journalist Nick Pollard to head investigations related to Savile, who worked at the BBC for more than 30 years.
News Corp. has paid more than $315 million in legal fees and costs associated with closing the News of the World tabloid, where phone hacking took place, and to settle a wave of lawsuits by victims. A second round of more than 150 cases is scheduled for trial in June.
While it’s easy to compare the BBC scandal to the one at New York-based News Corp., the BBC has a better reputation and great trust from the public, Foster said.
At News Corp., “most people think there was a rotten culture,” Foster said. “In the Savile incident, it seems to be one rather odd bloke who was able to get away with a lot as a result of his persona.”
That would change if there’s evidence the abuse was covered up, Foster said.
Savile “had a predatory nature and he sought out very vulnerable children,” Alinia said. More victims and potential witnesses are coming forward “on a day to day basis.”
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