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LONDON: The head of the BBC denied yesterday helping to cover up abuse by one of its former stars but accepted the broadcaster had been damaged by a scandal that has shaken public trust in a national institution.
George Entwistle, who was announced as the 90-year-old media organisation’s new boss in August, told hostile MPs that failures at the BBC had allowed Jimmy Savile, once one of Britain’s top TV presenters, to prey on young girls for years.
He added he could not rule out suggestions that an abuse ring might have existed at the state-funded BBC during the height of Savile’s fame in the 1970s and 80s.
But Entwistle rejected claims that BBC bosses had tried to hide allegations against Savile, who died last year, or suppressed an inquiry by one of their own news programmes.
“This is a gravely serious matter and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror,” Entwistle told parliament’s Culture and Media Committee.
“There is no question that ... the culture and practices of the BBC seemed to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did, (which) will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us.”
Police are investigating allegations that the eccentric, cigar-chomping Savile, who hosted prime-time children’s shows on the BBC, abused girls as young as 12 over six decades, with some of the attacks taking place on BBC premises. Detectives announced a criminal inquiry into the claims on Friday, saying more than 200 potential victims had come forward.
The furore over Savile is the biggest controversy to hit the BBC since its director general and chairman resigned in 2004 after a judge-led inquiry ruled it had wrongly reported that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had tweaked intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It comes as British newspapers await the recommendations of a separate inquiry into journalistic ethics following a phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s now closed News of the World tabloid that could have serious implications for the media.
The BBC, which holds a special place in Britons’ affection and is paid for by a tax on viewers, has been under growing pressure since rival channel ITV exposed Savile’s alleged crimes three weeks ago.
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday the BBC appeared to have serious questions to answer. The most damaging aspect for Entwistle and senior managers was the accusation that a similar probe by the BBC’s flagship “Newsnight” show was pulled a couple of months after Savile’s death in October 2011 because it would clash with planned Christmas programmes celebrating his life and charity work. Entwistle’s predecessor as the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, who is the New York Times Co’s incoming chief executive, said the Newsnight investigation was mentioned to him by a journalist at a party last year, but he was later told it was not going ahead for journalistic reasons.