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The new head of the British Broadcasting Corporation got a grilling today. It came from British lawmakers probing a widening pedophile scandal at the BBC. George Entwistle was asked how the late DJ and show host Jimmy Savile could get away with molesting underage girls for decades, and the members of Parliament wanted to know why and how a BBC expose on Savile was killed before it could air last year. Vicki Barker reports.
VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Barely three months into the BBC's top job, George Entwistle found himself appearing before the same formidable parliamentary committee that's been investigating illegal phone hacking by British tabloids. Panel chairman John Whittingdale made the stakes clear in his opening question.
JOHN WHITTINGDALE: The BBC's reputation for trust and integrity is one of its most precious assets, and yet do not accept that that is in jeopardy as a result of some of the suggestions that have been made in the last few weeks.
BARKER: Over the next two hours, the balding, bespectacled Entwistle would speak hesitantly, short bursts of speech punctuated by painful pauses. Savile's decades of abuse, he told the panel, were a source of grave regret.
GEORGE ENTWISTLE: There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved in the years, that the culture and practices of the BBC seemed to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did, will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us. There is no question about that.
BARKER: The BBC's "Panorama" program last night aired allegations that Savile had accomplices at the BBC. Panel member Philip Davies.
PHILIP DAVIES: Have the BBC taken any steps to identify who else was involved in that pedophile ring?
ENTWISTLE: That's an allegation I've seen made in the last few days. It's something that we are putting our resources at the disposal of the police in.
BARKER: Panel chairman Whittingdale sounded incredulous at Entwistle's seeming lack of curiosity about the BBC "Newsnight" program's planned expose of Savile last year, this at the same time that the BBC was preparing several Christmas tributes to Savile's career and charity work.
WHITTINGDALE: You're told that one of the flagship investigative programs on the BBC is looking into one of the most iconic figures, whom you are about to commission huge tributes to, and you don't want to know what it is?
ENTWISTLE: It wasn't I didn't want to know...
BARKER: His position as director general, Entwistle explained, demanded that he never appear to be interfering or intervening in any news decision. And he denied that "Newsnight's" editor, Peter Rippon, only killed the expose after pressure from above.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Entwistle, should you resign?
BARKER: George Entwistle, leaving parliament after today's testimony. Until he got the director general's job in July, his highest-profile role at the BBC had been head of coverage of this summer's royal jubilee. He's a longtime BBC employee, and an army of analysts has been arguing that that's the problem. Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics.
CHARLIE BECKETT: I think there are too many people, frankly, who have worked only at the BBC. I think there are too many people who have a kind of responsibility, yet don't seem to act upon it.
BARKER: A press release today noted the BBC is now investigating nine allegations of sexual harassment, assault or inappropriate conduct on the part of staff; some, potentially criminal. It's not clear how many concern Savile. Since the scandal broke, several women reporters and presenters at the BBC have spoken of a culture of casual sexual harassment, both past and several alleged present.
Police now say they are following some 400 leads in the Savile case, involving more than 200 possible victims. The BBC has launched two independent inquiries into Savile and the decision to kill that expose. And John Whittingdale's parliamentary committee has said it's prepared to call more witnesses as needed. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.
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