BBC sex-abuse scandal echoes across the Atlantic


Mark Thompson, 55, who headed the BBC at the time the Savile documentary was spiked, now finds himself in a what-did-he-know-when position as a British investigative committee begins looking into the Savile-BBC matter. (GONZALO FUENTES/REUTERS)

Odd how Britain’s media scandals have a way of lapping up on this side of the Atlantic.

First there were the revelations about Rupert Murdoch’s phone-hacking journalists and the wormy interrelationships among Britain’s tabloid press, law enforcement and government officials. That mess continues to have implications for Murdoch’s U.S. media empire, which includes Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal and 20th Century Fox.

Now another born-in-Britain horror story is sending ripples to these shores.

This one involves former BBC-TV host Sir Jimmy Savile, who is posthumously accused of being one of Britain’s most prodigious, and certainly most famous, child abusers. Police in London say Savile, who died last year at 84, may have sexually molested more than 200 victims, mostly children, over several decades.

The emerging question is how much the BBC — Britain’s esteemed public broadcaster — knew about Savile’s conduct and whether it turned a blind eye to or even covered up his alleged crimes, some of which purportedly took place on BBC premises.

The BBC’s reputation has been damaged by the revelation that “Newsnight,” its version of “60 Minutes,” was about to expose Savile last December. But officials spiked the program at the last minute, purportedly because of a lack of evidence.

The allegations against Savile — a kind of freakish Dick Clark who was known for hosting shows such as “Top of the Pops” and was knighted for his charitable work — were broadcast this month by ITV, an independent rival to state-funded BBC.

This would likely be of passing interest here if the story hadn’t broken several weeks after the New York Times Co. announced the hiring of its new chief executive. He is Mark Thompson, who headed the BBC at the time the Savile documentary was spiked.

Thompson, 55, now finds himself in a what-did-he-know-when position as a British investigative committee begins looking into the Savile-BBC matter. The Times Co., meanwhile, finds itself answering questions about the future of its future chief executive, who is to start work next month.

“He’s our incoming CEO, and there’s no change in our plans for that,” said Times Co. spokesman Robert Christie on Wednesday. “He has the confidence of management. . . . He has said [in multiple press interviews] that he didn’t know about this and we take him at his word. There’s no evidence that he did.”

The Times’s newsroom, by contrast, now is in the awkward position of covering a story in which its incoming boss has a central role.

So far — at least in the judgment of the Times’s public editor, its independent critic — the paper has acquitted itself well.

“To its credit,” wrote the editor, Margaret Sullivan, this week, “the Times is reporting this story regularly through its London bureau, and has displayed it several times on the Web site’s home page.” Though she expressed skepticism that Thompson, while running the 22,000-employee BBC, knew about Savile and “Newsnight,” she added, “It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the [Times] job, given this turn of events.”

The Savile scandal has dominated the news in Britain for nearly a month, in no small part because the BBC has been covering its own involvement in it. On Monday, for instance, the BBC’s “Panorama” program aired an exposé about the scandal and the corporation’s failings.

The BBC holds such a special place in British public life that it’s sometimes referred to as “Auntie.” It’s not generally viewed as the kind of place where Savile — recently described by the London Metropolitan Police as a “predatory sex offender” — could thrive.

The scandal has also proved irresistible to the tabloids, particularly those owned by Murdoch. The irony here, of course, is that the Murdoch tabs were badly bruised by the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent eight-month inquiry into press ethics. As the allegations mounted, Murdoch closed his News of the World tabloid, which had been at the heart of illegal efforts to pry into private phone accounts.

Murdoch now appears to be getting some payback. On Wednesday, the letters “BBC” were splashed on the front page of the Murdoch-owned Sun tabloid with the explanation: “Baffled Bumbling Clueless.”

Murdoch himself tweeted last week: “Saville[sic]-BBC story long way to run. BBC far the biggest, most powerful organization in UK.”

“I think that now is the time they are eating their dish of revenge,” John Lloyd, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, said of the tabloids and the Murdoch press.

Lloyd noted another irony: When Thompson and Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, were grilled during the government inquiry into press standards following the phone hacking scandal early this year, “they highlighted the ethics they pounded into all of their employees, in stark contrast to the tabloids.”

For decades, Savile was one of the BBC’s star presenters, an oddball character known for his bleached pageboy haircut, catch phrases (“How’s about that, then?”), cigars and colorful tracksuits. His eccentricity was part of his appeal, as was his working-class background and accent, which stood out among the BBC’s more refined and cultured personalities.

One of the programs he hosted was a much-loved children’s show called “Jim’ll Fix It,” in which children wrote in with wishes that Savile would help to realize.

In 1990, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his charity work, including raising money for hospitals. Several of his alleged victims, including disabled children, were patients in those hospitals.

The Savile row has shown no signs of abating. London police have launched an investigation and the BBC has set up two internal inquiries. The BBC on Tuesday confirmed that nine of its staff members are being investigated for sexual harassment or abuse. The widespread coverage of the scandal across Britain has also prompted a record number of calls to help lines from sexual-abuse victims, according to charities.

Adam reported from London.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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