BBC chief to face lawmakers over sex abuse scandal

Mon Oct 22, 2012 6:43pm EDT

* BBC under pressure over sex allegations against dead presenter

* Jimmy Savile accused of widespread abuse

* Prime minister says broadcaster has questions to answer

By Michael Holden

LONDON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - The head of the BBC goes before lawmakers on Tuesday with the publicly funded British broadcaster facing one of the biggest crises in its history over accusations it pulled a probe into sexual abuse by a former presenter as part of a wider cover-up.

George Entwistle, who only took charge at the 90-year-old media organisation in August, will appear before parliament's Culture Committee the day after Prime Minister David Cameron said the BBC had serious questions to answer.

Police are investigating allegations Jimmy Savile, once one of Britain's most celebrated TV stars who died last year, abused women, including girls as young as 12, over a 60-year period with some of the attacks taking place on BBC premises.

Police opened a criminal inquiry into the allegations on Friday, saying more than 200 potential victims had come forward.

Entwistle, whose predecessor Mark Thomson is the New York Times Co's incoming chief executive, and other managers have come under pressure to explain why rumours about Savile were not investigated at the height of his fame in the 1970s and 80s.

But far more damaging are suggestions an investigation into the alleged sex crimes 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.

The editor of "Newsnight" stepped aside on Monday after the BBC said he had given an "inaccurate of incomplete" explanation of why his team's inquiry was dropped, prompting Cameron to voice concern that it appeared the BBC was changing its story.

The furore over Savile is the biggest controversy to surround 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 "sexed up" intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It comes as British newspapers await the recommendations of a separate wide-ranging inquiry into journalistic ethics following the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's now closed News of the World tabloid.

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"If there was corporate jiggery pokery - I'm saying 'if' as there's no reason to believe there was ... then George is at the heart of it," Steve Hewlett, a media consultant and former BBC editor, told Reuters.

"Were it to emerge that Newsnight had been tinkered with because of corporate interests then that would be a disaster."

At the time of the Newsnight investigation, Entwistle was head of BBC Vision, which oversees BBC television's commissioning and programming.

Panorama said the BBC's head of news, Helen Boaden, had briefly told him in December about the programme's investigation and that as a result he might have to change his Christmas programming schedules, which included Savile tributes.

Neither Boaden or Entwistle provided responses to Panorama about the conversation, the BBC said.

The BBC has launched two independent reviews of the allegations, but Entwistle will face scrutiny from lawmakers as to why his organisation has apparently put out partial or misleading information since rival channel ITV first aired the accuations against Savile at the end of last month.

"Why was it (the Newsnight investigation) dropped? Why is it that the initial reasons given now appear to be contradicted by the journalists involved?" committee chairman John Whittingdale said, adding the suspicion of interference damaged the BBC's reputation.

He said the committee also wanted to know why Savile's behaviour at the BBC had not been challenged when he was alive.

While Savile was little known beyond Britain, the eccentric, cigar-chomping one-time DJ was one of the most recognised TV personalities on British television, hosting prime-time shows.

But former colleagues have now come forward to say there had been rumours for years involving young girls and Savile, famous for his garish outfits and long blonde hair, and later knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his charity work.

Other BBC employees have talked of a culture at the corporation where women were groped and have hinted that Savile was not the only household name to have been involved.

"The whole Savile business is certainly one of the worst (crises) ... because Savile became what he became because of the BBC and he appears to have abused BBC premises and programmes and staff to cover his tracks at the very least," Hewlett said.

"That's very difficult for the BBC who depend on the trust and affection of licence payers for their existence really. Anything that undermines or damages that is serious."

Paid for by a yearly levy of 145.50 pounds ($230) on all British households with a colour TV, critics have queried whether such this licence fee funding arrangement should continue when some private media companies are struggling.

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