A sexual abuse scandal shaking the BBC broadened Tuesday, with the broadcaster saying that it is investigating claims of sexual abuse and harassment against nine staff members and contributors, in addition to the late disgraced children’s TV host Jimmy Savile.
The BBC has been rocked by allegations that Savile, who died last year, abused underage teens over several decades, sometimes on BBC premises. Some of the alleged victims have accused other entertainers and BBC staff of participating in abuse during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Director-general George Entwistle told British lawmakers Tuesday that the BBC is looking into historical allegations of sexual abuse or harassment against “between eight and 10” past and present employees.
The BBC press office later clarified the figure, saying there were allegations of “sexual harassment, assault or inappropriate conduct” against nine current or recent staff and contributors to the BBC, which employs some 20,000 people.
The broadcaster said some of the alleged offences dated to years ago, but the victims had all come forward since the Savile scandal erupted. Some of the cases have been passed to police while others are being investigated internally.
Entwistle said it was too early to say whether sexual abuse had been endemic within Britain’s publicly funded national broadcaster, but insisted the BBC would assist police if detectives chose to investigate whether there had been a pedophile ring at the corporation.
Entwistle acknowledged there had been “a problem of culture within the BBC… a broader cultural problem” that allowed Savile’s behaviour to go unchecked.
“There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved… will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us,” Entwistle said. “This is a gravely serious matter, and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror.”
Entwistle’s testimony before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee came a day after the BBC aired a powerful documentary about the corporation’s role in the expanding sex abuse scandal involving Savile, who died a year ago at age 84.
Since Savile’s death, scores of women and several men have come forward to say the entertainer – a longtime host of music and children’s programs including Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It – abused them when they were children or teenagers. Police have identified more than 200 potential victims.
The BBC, one of the world’s largest and most respected broadcasters, is under fire for failing to stop the abuse and for pulling an expose on Savile from TV schedules at the last minute in December. The sex allegations were later aired on the rival ITV network.
The head of the BBC’s Newsnight program, Peter Rippon, has been suspended pending an investigation of his decision to scrap the Savile story.
Monday’s documentary, which was watched by more than five million people, presented the unusual spectacle of BBC journalists grilling their own bosses about why the piece had been dropped.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the story, the parliamentary committee spent two hours Tuesday questioning Entwistle, who has been in the BBC’s top job for just a month, after years in senior news and current affairs roles.
It may also want to question his predecessor, Mark Thompson, who led the organization at the time the Newsnight report was yanked. Thompson was appointed chief executive of the New York Times Co. in August and is due to take up the post next month.
He told ITV News that if “the police inquiry or the select committee want to hear from me, of course I’ll help in any way I can.”
Few public figures have had as spectacular a fall from grace as the cigar-chomping, platinum-haired Savile, who was knighted for his charity fundraising.
Since the ITV report aired earlier this month, his family has removed and destroyed his gravestone, and two charities named after him have announced they will close.
It is not just the BBC that is under fire. Schools and hospitals associated with Savile’s charity work stand accused of letting him abuse young people during visits. And state prosecutors have acknowledged they investigated four abuse allegations against him in 2009, but did not press charges.
Child welfare experts say there is a sadly familiar pattern – seen also in the case of child-molesting Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky or pedophile priests in the Roman Catholic church – of large organizations failing to act on claims of abuse from young people.
One of the revelations of Monday’s documentary was that Rippon had sent an email expressing doubts about the Savile documentary because “our sources so far are just the women” – Savile’s accusers.
Entwistle insisted the BBC was not complacent about sexism, and had hired a senior lawyer to look at how it handles sexual harassment cases.
“I do believe the culture has changed since the seventies and eighties,” Entwistle said. “But I’m not convinced it has changed as much as it should have.”
He said Savile had been “a very skilful and successful sexual predator who covered his tracks.”
“These things are institutionally, it seems, very difficult to deal with,” he said.
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