BBC Roiled By Jimmy Savile Sex Abuse Scandal

The BBC is dealing with its worst crisis in decades. At the heart of the affair: allegations that the late BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile serially sexually abused underage women. The BBC now is having to defend how it handled an investigative report into the charges.

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Last night, the BBC aired an extraordinary investigative program, essentially investigating itself. The report focused on a pedophile scandal involving one of the BBC's best-known entertainers and a decision to kill an earlier BBC report that would have exposed the man. Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Just days after BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile died at 84 last year, the whispers began: that Savile's long-rumored interest in underage girls may have been more than rumor.

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BARKER: So Peter Rippon, executive producer of the BBC's hard-edged late night news show, "Newsnight," ordered one of his teams to investigate. Reporter Liz Mackean and producer Meirion Jones found strong evidence that Savile had been molesting, even raping, girls as young as 13 for decades, in some cases on BBC premises. The team found victims and persuaded several to speak to them.

And then, late last year, shortly before the segment was to air, Rippon shelved it.

LIZ MACKEAN: Tonight, "Panorama" asks just how much BBC staff knew about Savile's abuse.

BARKER: Reporter Mackean spoke of her shock on last night's BBC "Panorama" program investigating the circumstances behind that decision.

MACKEAN: All I can say is that it was an abrupt change of tone. From, you know, one day, excellent, let's prepare to get this thing on air, to hold on.

BARKER: Rippon has insisted his decision was not influenced by the fact that the BBC was about to air several big Christmas tribute programs to Savile and his charity work. Among other reasons, he says he decided to kill the segment after hearing that police and prosecutors had chosen not to pursue the victims' allegations for lack of evidence. But producer Meirion Jones told "Panorama" he sent Rippon an e-mail, begging him to think of how this might appear.

MEIRION JONES: I was sure the story would come out one way or another, and that if it did the BBC would be accused of a cover-up.

BARKER: And that is exactly what happened after a rival broadcaster finally aired its own investigation early this month. The police have since launched a criminal investigation into the allegations against Jimmy Savile.

"Panorama" found no evidence that Rippon had bowed to internal pressure. It did raise some questions about the BBC's new director general, George Entwistle. He was head of BBC television when those tribute programs aired. Steve Hewlett is a former TV news executive, now an independent media analyst.

STEVE HEWLETT: The trouble is, George was, if you'll forgive the term, you know, at the scene of the crime and therefore has been compromised from the start.

BARKER: Yesterday, with public anger and political pressure mounting, the BBC issued a new statement, saying that parts of Rippon's original explanation for shelving the investigation had been inaccurate. They announced he is stepping aside until two separate BBC probes into the circumstances are complete. Reporter Liz Mackean told "Panorama" she's still haunted by the impact all of this has had on the women she interviewed.

MACKEAN: You know, I felt we had a responsibility towards them. We'd got them to talk to us. But, above all, we did believe them. And so then, for their stories not to be heard, yes, I felt very bad about that, I felt very much that I'd let them down.

BARKER: British lawmakers don't just want to know why the "Newsnight" investigation was pulled. They also want to know why Entwistle or other BBC executives decided to go ahead and air the Savile tribute programs if, as has been alleged, some may have known what "Newsnight" had discovered.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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