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BBC Boss Answers Questions About Jimmy Savile Sexual Abuse Scandal in British Parliament

George Entwistle - P 2012

Director general George Entwistle tells the committee that "a problem of culture" allowed the former "Top of the Pops" host's behavior and that a dropped report on Savile should have aired.

LONDON -- BBC director general George Entwistle acknowledged Tuesday that there was a "problem of culture within the BBC" when late former Top of the Pops host Jimmy Savile, who has in recent weeks become the focus on sexual abuse allegations, was a stalwart on the public broadcaster's roster.

"I don't believe someone like Jimmy Savile could do what he did without there being a broader problem of culture," Entwistle told a committee of the British parliament that was the was talk of the media industry here on Tuesday. "This is a gravely serious matter and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror, frankly, that...his activities went on as long as they did undetected."

Entwistle faced down aggressive questioning from members of parliament about the fallout for the BBC. He defended the BBC's response to the Savile sex abuse scandal, but agreed that it has raised questions of trust.

He described the claims about Savile's behavior to the House of Commons culture committee as "very, very grave" and said "we have done much of what we should have done." The broadcaster has launched two internal probes - one into the kind of work environment the BBC provides and possible factors that allowed Savile's behavior, the other into a decision by flagship news show Newsnight to drop a planned report on the abuse allegations.

Entwistle's appearance before the select committee caused the biggest media scrum for a parliamentary committee here since News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch turned up to give evidence in the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed his company's U.K. publishing arm News International last year.

Entwistle, under pressure from one committee member to come up with exactly how many sexual harassment claims he was expecting against the BBC, said he was investigating five to 10 "serious allegations" involving past and present employees.

"There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved in the years - 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," Entwistle told the committee.

Police have described Savile, who was also a DJ and died last year aged 84, as a "predatory sex offender," and believe he may have abused many people, including young girls, over a 40-year period.

A criminal investigation is under way as well.

Entwistle said: "I'm not sure in the '60s and '70s... [staff] would have felt there was anything they could do" about sexual harassment. Nowadays, BBC staff "know where to go" in the case of harassment complaints, he added.

Asked about sexual discrimination within the company, Entwistle said: "I believe the culture has changed at the BBC, but I am not convinced that it has changed as much as it should have." He previously called for more female hosts at the BBC.

He was also questioned Tuesday about a slew of issues raised by Monday's episode of the BBC's news investigative program Panorama, which reported on the abuse allegations and why the Newsnight  investigation into Savile was canned last December.

Entwistle said that, after seeing the Panorama broadcast, he believed the investigation by Newsnight into Savile should have been allowed to air. He distanced himself from the decision taken by Newsnight to drop the report from its program, saying senior editors made such decisions.

"I came away from Panorama firmly of the view that that investigation, even if in the judgment of the editor it wasn't ready for transmission at the point he was looking at it, should have been allowed to continue," the BBC boss, who started his job only last moth, said.

Newsnight editor Peter Rippon stepped aside Monday amid a probe, led by former Sky News head Nick Pollard, into why the program dropped its investigation.

Entwistle was also asked about the issue of whether or not BBC management had influenced the decision to drop the Newsnight item, because the broadcaster was scheduled to air two Savile tribute programs late last year.

Entwistle said he had not asked Rippon about any conversations about the investigation with more senior staff.

The director general also said it was a matter of "regret and embarrassment" that a Rippon blog post about the dropping of the report had been inaccurate, leading to amendments unveiled on Monday.

But he told parliament that he believed "to the best of the evidence we have been able to assemble" the explanation now being offered by the BBC for the dropping of the Newsnight report was accurate. "What became clear to us after the blog was published was that what had happened on Newsnight, there was a significant, it seemed, difference of opinion between the people working on the investigation and the editor, Peter Rippon, who commissioned the investigation."

On his blog earlier this month, Rippon had explained editorial concerns behind his decision to can the Newsnight report. He said it was "totally untrue" that he had been ordered to drop the report by his bosses as part of a BBC cover-up. Instead, he cited concerns about the amount of evidence that was available.

Entwistle opened his Tuesday appearance by suggesting that the Panorama program pointed to the BBC's health as an independent news organization in its ability to investigate itself and air the findings. He argued that no other news organization in the world would do this.

Entwistle was also questioned about a brief conversation with BBC director of news Helen Boaden last December about the possibility of Newsnight running a report about Savile, when Entwistle, then the BBC director of vision, was planning a tribute piece about the presenter over Christmas last year.

"The key message I took away was that it wasn't yet clear to Helen whether it was going to stand up or not," he said. "I wouldn't have had any qualms about making any changes we needed to make to the Christmas schedule."

But he claimed not to have asked about the exact nature of the report, justifying it as not wanting to take "undue interest," adding: "I don't believe I did fail... the system as a whole doesn't seem to have got this right."