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Sweeping child abuse scandal shakes BBC and other British institutions

BBC Director General George Entwistle resigned on Saturday as the BBC spiraled further into scandal over its coverage of two separate sex abuse cases – one, a cover up, and the other, a possible wrongful accusation. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

The director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, George Entwistle, resigned Saturday after only 54 days in the role -  the latest to be caught in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal that has thrown the 90-year-old publicly funded behemoth and other U.K. institutions into deepening turmoil.

The scandal, which began with allegations against a single former BBC employee, has since engulfed hospitals, children’s homes, even the police.

It also poses questions for Mark Thompson, Entwistle's immediate predecessor, who on Monday becomes chief executive of The New York Times.

For an entire week, one of the BBC's key news shows suggested a leading Conservative party politician, who wasn’t named, had been involved in the rape of a young boy in Wales decades ago. The man accused denied it; the victim himself now says it was a case of mistaken identity.

Many networks ran interviews with the victim -- one even asked whether a pedophile network had been protected by a masonic conspiracy. Did a judge who led an early inquiry into the abuse at a North Wales children’s home deliberately hide the names of famous or influential abusers?

Max Nash / AP

The BBC Director General, George Entwistle, announces his resignation from the BBC outside New Broadcasting House in central London, Saturday Nov. 10.

In front of 1 million television viewers, a morning TV host handed a list of alleged pedophiles to the British Prime Minister David Cameron live on air. That list, allegedly including the names of other senior politicians, was compiled based on unsubstantiated Internet rumors. 

The revelation that all of this was a mistake is once again causing Britain's media organizations to question their own values, only months after news of newspaper phone-hacking. It has filled Britain with outrage, astonishment and self-doubt. 

The scandal had begun with separate claims that BBC - one of the most respected brands in journalism worldwide - had failed to expose the late BBC children's television personality and fundraiser, Jimmy Savile, as a pedophile even though it had interviewed several victims who made allegations against the star. 

It’s now clear those allegations are well founded. Yet the same BBC program, 'Newsnight', that shelved the original and apparently accurate Savile story was the first to broadcast the latest false allegations. 

'Newsnight' has apologized on air for its mistake, another inquiry has been launched, and the program has temporarily suspended all its investigatory work. On Saturday, Entwistle, who took his post in September, resigned in response to the growing scandal after a humiliating interview on the BBC’s own flagship radio news program, 'Today'. The BBC is in crisis.

BBC boss Entwistle quits amid turmoil over network's child sex abuse scandal

On Sunday, the head of the BBC's governing body - former Thatcher-era government minister Lord Patten - admitted the issue of public trust in BBC journalism was paramount, and said a "thorough, radical, structural overhaul" of the organization was now necessary.

Savile had been a British institution, presenting TV shows during the 1970s and '80s that attracted huge audiences. Now police investigators suspect that he was abusing hundreds of children, even on BBC property.

One man described how, at the age of 9, he went to be part of the audience for the Savile show "Jim’ll Fix It." He says Savile abused him in a dressing room.

“He put his hand on my knee and started touching me,” the man said in an interview.  “And grabbed my hand and forced it on top of his trousers. I was absolutely petrified.”

The allegations became public only weeks after the departure of Entwistle's predecessor, Mark Thompson, who starts his job as NYT chief executive on Monday.

In a statement last month, quoted by The New York Times, Thompson said, “During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”

Lewis Whyld / AP

Jimmy Savile is shown in a March 2008 file photo.

But NBC News has spoken to one of the journalists who broke the Savile story. He says he called Thompson’s office in May and outlined the allegations to his personal assistant.

“I absolutely remember saying it,” says Miles Goslett. “I always felt it extraordinary that no senior people in the BBC including Mark Thompson as director general addressed this issue.”

When asked about Goslett’s allegations, the BBC sent NBC News a prepared statement regarding Thompson’s knowledge of the affair:

“Mark Thompson has repeatedly made clear he had no personal knowledge of the allegations. While Ms. Cecil recalls Mr Goslett telephoning her to complain about a Freedom of Information request she does not recall that he mentioned the nature of the allegations against Savile." (Click here for the BBC’s full statements on the affair )

Jessica Cecil is the head of the director general's office.

This week NBC News approached Thompson for an interview, after a lecture he gave at Oxford University. Thompson declined, saying he wanted to wait for the outcome of that BBC inquiry.

But whatever its conclusions, the implications for the BBC are already becoming clear. Trust in the institution had dropped from 62 percent in 2009 to 47 percent last week, according to a poll conducted by one of the BBC’s own radio stations.

It is not alone. This scandal has rocked people’s faith in many of Britain’s institutions and left a country questioning itself and its elite.

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