LONDON — When the BBC’s new leader took over six weeks ago, the Beeb was glowing in the remarkable success of the London Olympics. Now, the U.K. pubcaster and its fledgling director general, George Entwistle, are embroiled in one of the worst crises in its history, one that threatens not only current management but also casts a shadow over former DG Mark Thompson, set to take the chief executive job at the New York Times Co.
The scandal revolves around revelations that one of its star performers, Jimmy Savile, who died at age 84 in October 2011, was a prolific pedophile. Not only is a BBC coverup of Savile’s actions alleged, its flagship current-affairs program, “Newsnight,” spiked an investigation in December 2011 into the allegations that was meant to air late last year. That action has only added momentum to the controversy.
The charges against the institution — which, for almost all Brits, is as ingrained into daily life as tea and the NHS — have shaken the country to the core, not only because of image, but finances: The alleged pedophilia and decades of coverup were all being done with taxpayers’ money.
That factor helps make this the most troubling scandal in ages. The sexual escapades of the royal family involved consenting adults. The News of the World phone hacking centered around the activities of a private company. This is something different. The fact that underage girls are involved makes the story particularly shocking. Many citizens feel angry and personally betrayed. Savile was a familiar figure who worked in philanthropic areas, but he was never exactly wholesome-looking. In addition, his death means that people will never see a trial or justice served. So their animosity focuses on the BBC, a symbol of solid dependability over the entire lives of most U.K. residents.
The incident has opened a fierce debate in the media and the public about the culture of the BBC, an institution run by “control freaks and cowards,” according to newspaper columnist Max Hastings.
On Oct. 3, almost a year after Savile died, the Beeb’s commercial rival ITV aired “Investigation: Exposure, the Other Side of Jimmy Savile,” in which several women said Savile abused them when they were teenagers, and accused him of being a prolific pedophile. The doc triggered the present crisis.
The British police and the BBC are now conducting formal investigations into the charges. So far, 12 of Sevile’s victims are believed to have come forward and are considering legal action against the BBC and others.
The floppy-haired Savile, a wartime coal miner, raised millions for charities and worked as a hospital porter, roles that give him access to vulnerable young people who he is alleged to have abused for at least three decades. At the peak of his TV fame, Savile won audiences of more than 10 million for his primetime BBC children’s show “Jim’ll Fix It,” which ran from 1975-94. He was awarded a knighthood in 1990.
There are two key aspects to the investigation: what Savile is alleged to have done on BBC premises in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and whether executives knew but turned a blind eye.
This is the subject of an inquiry into “the culture and practices of the BBC” led by English high court judge Janet Smith.
Another part of the furor is why the BBC pulled its own investigation into Savile’s abuse by “Newsnight” in 2011.
Conspiracy theorists believe the program was abandoned because the Corporation pressured “Newsnight,” not wanting to destroy the impact of tributes to the recently deceased Savile, planned for the Christmas schedule.
Embarrassingly for the Beeb, these tributes, on TV and radio, aired as planned, while the “Newsnight” expose never saw the light of day, a decision Entwistle now accepts as a huge mistake. At that time, Entwistle was in charge of schedules at the pubcaster.
Why this disaster took place is the subject of another internal BBC review being conducted by the former head of Sky News Nick Pollard. His report is expected to be published by mid-December.
What Pollard discovers will almost certainly determine the fate of the main protagonists in this messy saga.
Pollard’s findings are likely to prove terminal for “Newsnight” editor Peter Rippon, who was suspended Oct. 22 when the BBC announced that his original blog explaining the reasons for jettisoning the Savile story were “misleading.”
Also feeling the heat are BBC head of news Helen Boaden, whose role in the “Newsnight” decision remains unclear; Entwistle; and the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, a former government minister.
There is the question of whether Patten and Entwistle will resign — or, as British MP and former broadcaster Roger Gale put it, “fall on their swords.”
Says one senior U.K. broadcaster: “George Entwistle can’t be held responsible for things that happened at the BBC when he was still at school. He has, however, been shown to have had what one MP called ‘a remarkable lack of curiosity’ about why the ‘Newsnight’ investigation was pulled.” The source went on the characterize Entwistle’s recent appearance in the House of Commons, when he was quizzed about the Savile scandal, as woeful.
Adds the broadcaster: “The harm to the BBC is unlikely to last for long. But if Entwistle and Patten are forced to resign — and they sink or swim together, because Patten appointed Entwistle — that could be very damaging for brand BBC, because it takes years to recover from that kind of upheaval.”
Across the Pond, Thompson, who was the BBC director general from 2004 until September 2012, is being battered by the scandal. On Oct. 13, he released a statement that said, “I was not notified or briefed about the ‘Newsnight’ investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation.”
But on Oct. 29, a New York Times opinion piece written by Joe Nocera questioned Thompson’s choice to head the New York Times Co. in light of the scandal. Nocera asks, “What did he know, when did he know it?”
David Elstein, a former ITV exec and ex-CEO of Channel 5, is convinced the Savile scandal has followed a similar pattern of BBC drift evident in the saga over the “sexed up” Iraqi war dossier that led to the departures of director general Greg Dyke and chair Gavyn Davies in 2004.
He also draws parallels with the News Corp phone-hacking scandal that turned Brand Murdoch toxic in the U.K.
“It stems from a sense of arrogance and immunity,” Elstein says. “The Savile scandal will be damaging to the BBC for many, many months to come. There is bewilderment that the BBC failed to provide strong leadership in this crisis.”
In retrospect, the title “Jim’ll Fix It” is ironic — there is plenty that needs fixing, but Jim is the problem, not the solution. What: A pedophilia scandal at the BBC.
The takeaway: Trust in the taxpayer-funded pubcaster is shaken as it faces charges of covering up decades of molestations.