LONDON (Reuters) - The British government warned the BBC on Wednesday that a growing sex abuse scandal was raising “very real concerns” about public trust in the broadcaster.
The BBC has been thrown into disarray by accusations that it helped cover up sexual abuse by one of its former presenters, Jimmy Savile, and has struggled to explain why one of its own programs dropped an investigation into Savile last year.
Police and the BBC, which is funded by the public through a license fee, are looking into allegations that the eccentric, cigar-chomping Savile, who died last year, abused girls as young as 12 over six decades. Some of the attacks were alleged to have taken place on BBC premises.
“These allegations do leave many institutions, perhaps particularly the BBC, with serious questions to answer,” Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament.
“The government will do everything it can do, other institutions must do what they can do, to make sure we learn the lessons of this and it can never happen again.”
Cameron’s comments follow a letter from Culture Secretary Maria Miller who told the BBC that “very real concerns are being raised about public trust and confidence in the BBC”.
Lawmakers and the media heavily criticized Director General George Entwistle for his uncertain appearance before parliament on Tuesday to answer questions over the scandal.
His predecessor, Mark Thompson, is also facing scrutiny over his handling of the case.
The public editor of Thompson’s soon-to-be employer, the New York Times, questioned whether the Briton was now fit to serve in his new role with such a scandal hanging over him.
“How likely is it that (Thompson) knew nothing?” Margaret Sullivan wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.
”His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism - profoundly. It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.
Thompson has said he was not briefed on the high-profile Newsnight program that detailed allegations against Savile, who hosted prime-time children’s shows on the BBC, and he was not involved in the decision to shelve its report.
The furor 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 “sexed up” intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Entwistle, who was announced as the new director general in August, told hostile lawmakers on Tuesday that failures at the BBC had allowed Savile to prey on young girls, but he denied he had helped suppress the Newsnight report.
Damian Collins, a lawmaker from the ruling Conservative Party and a member of the parliamentary committee which questioned Entwistle, told Reuters there were mounting concerns about the BBC and its management.
“I don’t think the director general gave a very convincing performance yesterday and I think there were a lot of questions about the decisions he’s taken,” he said.
In reference to Thompson, who was director general at the time of the Newsnight decision, he said: ”I find it extraordinary that the decision to close down the Jimmy Savile investigation could have been taken without the knowledge of the director general, who is the editor-in-chief, because this was not any run-of-the-mill investigation.
“It was one of the highest importance, involving some very grave criminal allegations about someone who had been a BBC employee for decades.”
The BBC said new allegations had been made against nine current BBC staff or contributors since revelations about Savile were first broadcast by rival channel ITV.
These ranged from inappropriate language or behavior to harassment and serious claims of sexual assault. Where appropriate, details had been passed to the police.
“I can’t go into specifics,” said a BBC spokeswoman. “Where appropriate action needs to be taken and people would need to be suspended, that will happen.”