For decades, Jimmy Savile, shown here in 2008, was a fixture on British television,… (Lewis Whyld )
LONDON — A scandal engulfing Britain’s venerable BBC widened Monday with the announcement that a senior news editor was stepping down pending the outcome of an investigation into why he axed a program about accusations of child sexual abuse by one of the broadcaster’s most famous on-air personalities.
Britons have reacted with horror to allegations that Jimmy Savile, a TV fixture beloved for his eccentric persona and philanthropic efforts, molested or sexually assaulted dozens of young girls over decades, sometimes in the British Broadcasting Corp.’s own studios.
Savile died in October 2011 at the age of 84. The respected, hard-hitting BBC program “Newsnight” was set to air an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse late last year, but the episode was abruptly killed. Weeks later, the BBC broadcast two fulsome, long-planned tributes to Savile.
The accusations of sexual misconduct lay dormant until rival network ITV aired its own investigation this month, which triggered a wave of women coming forward with stories of having been fondled, groped and assaulted as girls by Savile, in places ranging from including BBC premises to hospitals where they were patients. Police now say there may have been as many as 200 victims.
The scandal has put a cloud over the reputation of the BBC, an institution of such stature, trust and omnipresence in British public life that it has been nicknamed “Auntie.” Long associated with integrity and quality not just in Britain but throughout the world, the broadcaster now finds itself under tremendous pressure and scrutiny.
“This is the worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC,” veteran journalist John Simpson said on another BBC news program, “Panorama,” Monday night.
The broadcaster has initiated two independent inquiries, one into Savile’s activities and the culture of the BBC during the time he worked there, and the other into why the “Newsnight” broadcast was canceled. The BBC’s new director general, George Entwistle, who took up his post last month, has been summoned to answer questions before Parliament.
With his trademark loud track suits and his floppy, white-blond bob, Savile shot to fame in the 1970s hosting a musical countdown show and the wildly popular “Jim’ll Fix It,” a program on which he granted children’s wishes. But within the space of the last few weeks, many Brits have swung from regarding him as a former national treasure to a sexual predator whose widely lauded charity work with sick children was simply a way to get access to unsuspecting girls.
So devastating have the allegations been that Savile’s family, “out of respect for public opinion,” had his massive tombstone torn down in the North Yorkshire cemetery where he now lies buried in an unmarked grave. Thousands of mourners had attended his funeral service last year.
On Monday, television viewers were treated to the extraordinary scenario of one flagship BBC program, “Panorama,” investigating another, “Newsnight,” and the decision of editor Peter Rippon to shelve the episode on Savile at the last minute.
In a blog post earlier this month, Rippon denied having canceled the probe at the behest of higher-ups “as part of a BBC coverup.” Instead, he said, the story was too weak. He also insisted that the police had already known of all the evidence uncovered by “Newsnight” and had chosen not to investigate.
But on Monday, the BBC issued a statement contradicting its own senior employee, saying that “the police were not aware of all the allegations.” Rippon has now stepped down from his post.
“Panorama” interviewed two of the aborted program’s producers, both of whom took issue with Rippon’s decision to axe the program. One of Savile’s alleged victims also described her ordeal of opening up to “Newsnight,” only for her accusations to go nowhere.
“That’s what made me angry, the fact that I’d gone through all that stress when I really needed to concentrate on getting well,” Karin Ward said. “And then they never used it.”
The magnitude of the scandal has even prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to weigh in.
“The developments today are concerning, because the BBC has effectively changed its story about why it dropped the ‘Newsnight’ program about Jimmy Savile,” Cameron said. “These are serious questions. They need to be answered.”
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