LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s BBC on Monday apologized to a group of women who allege that one of the state-funded broadcaster’s top entertainers sexually abused them decades ago, a scandal that has raised questions about the BBC’s judgment then and now.
The man accused of using his status as a celebrity and prominent charity fund raiser to commit the crimes is Jimmy Savile, an eccentric BBC presenter who died last year aged 84.
Instantly recognizable for his shock of blonde hair, Savile was famous for his larger-than-life personality and for his love of smoking cigars, donning tracksuits and coming out with catch phrases that sometimes became part of the national lexicon.
The former DJ travelled around London in a Rolls-Royce and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his charitable work in 1990. When he died last year, he was buried wearing a tracksuit after his gold-colored coffin was put on public display in a hotel.
His reputation was called into question last week, however, after a documentary shown by the BBC’s rival ITV channel aired a slew of sexual assault allegations against Savile, triggering a media storm that has raised awkward questions for the BBC.
On Monday, the BBC’s new boss, George Entwistle, promised the corporation would cooperate fully with the police to investigate the allegations.
“The women involved here have gone through something awful and it’s something I deeply regret,” he told BBC radio on Monday, the first time the BBC had said it was sorry for what it is alleged to have happened.
“I would like to apologize on behalf of the organization to each and every one of them for what they have had to endure here.”
Some women said Savile had abused them when they were as young as 12 and described a culture of sexual abuse inside the BBC at the height of Savile’s fame in the 1970s and 1980s. Some also alleged that they had been attacked on BBC premises.
The scandal has seen critics accuse the BBC of mishandling or even covering up the case, particularly after an investigation into the allegations by its own flagship TV program was axed by its editors last December.
Prime Minister David Cameron has waded into the scandal, calling on the BBC to conduct an internal investigation, saying the allegations were “truly shocking”.
“It seems to me it is very important that the organization, the BBC, does that itself,” he told a BBC program on Sunday.
“But also, if there are questions that should be pursued by the police and other organizations, everyone has to ask themselves the question: ‘Is there new evidence that needs to be looked at?’”
Entwistle - who became Director General of the BBC less than a month ago - said all questions would be addressed, but only after police had finished their own investigation.
In an attempt to distance themselves from the sex abuse claims, charities set up by Savile are now considering dropping his name altogether, local media reported.
Last year, an investigation by Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship news show, was shelved, prompting suggestions that BBC bosses had known about the allegations but kept quiet.
The BBC has denied that. Newsnight’s editor Peter Rippon said his decision not to run its story was because the claims against Savile could not be substantiated.
Editing by Andrew Osborn