Violation of Trust

A sex scandal at the BBC tarnishes the broadcaster

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Michael Putland / Getty Images

Jimmy Savile as the presenter of the the BBC music chart show "Top Of The Pops", circa 1973

Britain boasts a storied history of investigative reporting and, in the BBC, a public broadcaster that has served as a role model for many imitators overseas. Yet something strange is happening to the nation's media. Last year's revelations of phone hacking by or on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday tabloid News of the World launched a cascading series of inquiries by different authorities. The institutions Britons relied on to keep one another on the straight and narrow--Parliament, the police, the press--were all implicated. Only the BBC--dear old Auntie Beeb--retained public trust. But since early October she has been engulfed in a scandal darker and more sordid than anything Murdoch's hackers dredged up, and the media--the BBC very much included--dine on little else.

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TV host Jimmy Savile, dead since last October, is back on British screens, waggling a big cigar and mouthing his uncatchy catchphrase, "Now then, now then." If the BBC's most enduring popular image is that of a maiden aunt, Savile was its wacky bachelor uncle from the late 1960s until the end, some three decades later, of his near continuous employment on light-entertainment programs. He seemed the ideal presenter to front shows aimed at kids: a bit zany, a tad countercultural, but absolutely safe. Parents entrusted their children to his care when he presented the music program Top of the Pops or made wishes come true for lucky young viewers who wrote to his show Jim'll Fix It to beg his help. Outside the studio he burnished his reputation with charity work, earning knighthoods from the Queen and the Pope. When he died last year at 84, the BBC's website eulogized his benevolence but struck an odd note: "Some questioned the motivation of the man behind such a singular public persona."

A huge problem for the BBC now is that some did indeed question Savile's motivation. For years there were rumors within the media that the children's-show host was a pedophile. His nickname among BBC insiders was Jim'll F--- It. Yet still the plaudits piled up. Even worse for the BBC--and especially for its current and recent top managers, including Mark Thompson, former BBC director general and incoming CEO of the New York Times Co.--the broadcaster's flagship news program, Newsnight, returned to those questions after Savile's death, but its investigation was shelved, and the BBC's two tributes to Savile aired as part of its heartwarming Christmas fare.

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The police and judiciary have begun to review evidence, some of which they had apparently ignored or overlooked, suggesting Savile was an insatiable sex offender who allegedly used his fame and philanthropy to gain access to his victims. For its part, the BBC has already set up several inquiries. These will not delve into the failures of the police but instead focus on the BBC's own deficient handling of Savile before and after his death and wider allegations of sexual harassment by other staff members that have come in the wake of the scandal.

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