The BBC sex abuse scandal currently rocking the UK is probably best likened to the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal — except bigger.The impact may not stay within the limits of the UK. It may even cause problems for the next CEO of the New York Times Company.
The controversy revolves around dozens of allegations of sexual abuse conducted by Jimmy Savile, a long-running and popular TV host in the UK who died last year, and rumours of a subsequent cover-up by the BBC, who employed Savile for decades.
Chief amongst these rumours is the startling news that the BBC’s premier current affairs show, Newsnight, was planning a 10-minute segment that would reveal the serious allegations against Savile. That show, created last December and reportedly featuring 10 alleged victims and witnesses, was cancelled and has never been shown on British TV.
At the time of cancellation, the Director General of the BBC was Mark Thompson, who is due to become the CEO of the New York Times Company in November. Thompson had been Director General of the BBC since 2004, and had a long and successful career at the company before that, even working at Newsnight during his 20s.
Following the broadcast of a show that revealed the allegations against Savile (on rival network ITV), and the subsequent explosion of coverage of Savile’s sexual exploits (which reportedly included visits to children’s hospitals and prisons for the criminally insane), Newsnight staff members have come forward to express their anger at the BBC segment’s cancellation. The Guardian reports that the cancellation caused a “furious row behind the scenes and led journalists connected with the programme to ask questions in private about what BBC bosses above [Newsnight editor Peter] Rippon knew about the film and the decision to pull it”.
Rippon has publicly come out to say that he cancelled the segment due to editorial concerns and was not ordered to by superiors. He also denied there were any rows amongst Newsnight staff.
Thompson has also denied any knowledge or involvement.
“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,” he said on Saturday. “I have no reason to doubt the public statement by the program’s editor, Peter Rippon, that the decision not to pursue the investigation was entirely his, and that it was made solely for journalistic reasons.”
“During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile,” he added.
Right now the majority of the negative public focus in the UK is falling on the current Director General, George Entwistle, who has promised two BBC inquiries into the allegations and pledged to appear in front of the House of Commons to answer MP’s questions (coincidentally, Entwistle is also a former Newsnight editor). However, the scandal seems likely to reach Thompson eventually. Additionally, there are now strong appeals, even from groups traditionally supportive of the BBC, for an independent investigation of the allegations.
Such an event could expose Entwistle and Thompson to the level of public scrutiny and criticism which Rupert Murdoch suffered during the phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry — and Murdoch, a longtime critic of both the BBC and the New York Times, is already gloating.
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