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'A steep fall' for BBC as child sex abuse scandal rocks the UK

For 20 years, Jimmy Savile's children's show was a highlight of Saturday night family TV on the BBC. But now, British police say 300 people have come forward with claims that Savile abused them during his 60-year broadcasting career. NBC's Annabel Roberts reports.

LONDON -- The child sex abuse scandal engulfing Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, has been producing disturbing headlines in the UK for almost a month, and the signs are this is just the beginning. Since the scandal broke, 300 victims have told police that they were abused by BBC TV host Jimmy Savile, suggesting this number may yet rise.

Savile hosted TV shows, worked for charities and was even awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. More than just a TV personality, he was a national institution. He was perhaps Britain’s answer to Dick Clark, hosting the UK’s equivalent of “American Bandstand,” the very British sounding “Top of the Pops.”

Savile died last year, but it is another institution, the one he worked for, that has become as much the focus of this scandal. The BBC says new allegations have been made against nine current BBC staff or contributors since the revelations about Savile. Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament: "These allegations do leave many institutions, perhaps particularly the BBC, with serious questions to answer."

It is difficult to exaggerate how fundamental the BBC is to British culture. It has the highest-rated radio stations. It runs one of the biggest TV channels. Its Web pages are the most-read. Its news is the most trusted. The BBC even has its own "sound" – a kind of posh, but not too posh, monotone adopted by all newsreaders. British children grow up with it.

Jimmy Savile abuse scandal stuns Britain: a who's who primer

Now, it is accused of turning its back while children were allegedly abused on its premises by a BBC star and others. One BBC show, “Jim’ll Fix It,” even invited children to write in and ask to be on TV. The access to legal minors has prompted comparisons to Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. It’s a scandal that is raising questions about the cult of celebrity and about how large prestigious institutions can offer pedophiles a place to hide.

One seemingly inexplicable aspect of what happened is that so many people now appear to have been aware that it was happening. In interviews, Savile was asked about whether he was a pedophile and denied it. Comedians told jokes about it. Yet for decades no one did anything to stop it. Perhaps all this is not just about the British Broadcasting Corporation but about British culture itself.

BBC ripped for handling of sex abuse scandal tied to former host

The BBC’s journalistic culture is also being questioned. The former director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is soon to be chief executive of the New York Times. Under his leadership, and that of new BBC director-general George Entwistle, a BBC investigation into Savile was dropped last year. It took a rival network, ITV, to uncover the scandal.

It’s still not clear why the well-regarded show “Newsnight” dropped the investigation, and there is no suggestion that either Thompson or Entwistle were involved in a cover up. But, on top of the BBC’s failure to stop Savile, its shelving of his investigation has shocked the UK. The BBC’s journalism is fiercely independent; its own journalists have done much to make the Savile story headline news, but many of the questions are about the competency of BBC's management rather than individual reporters and producers.

Police believe former TV star Jimmy Savile, a national icon, may have been one of Britain's worst pedophile offenders. Some of Savile's alleged 300 victims had appeared on his TV shows. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

The alleged abuse happened many years ago, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. And the BBC is not the only organization involved. For example, Savile was allowed into children’s hospital wards. The police were asked to investigate on a number of occasions but failed to bring charges. What makes the allegations all the more disturbing to many Britons is that the BBC is funded through a tax paid by every British family with a television.

The BBC has faced serious crises before. In 2003, it was investigated after a controversial broadcast about the Iraq war that led to the suicide of a leading scientist. The public inquiry was so critical it lead to the resignation of the BBC’s then director-general. Ten years on, the BBC is still thriving. But it’s hard to imagine a more toxic claim than the allegation that the British Broadcasting Corporation allowed children to be abused by its employees. As another famous British bastion of journalism, The Economist, puts it this week, “From the height of so much esteem, it is a steep fall.”

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