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BBC reporters put their own bosses in the hot seat over their role in an expanding pedophilia scandal, airing footage from a previously-unseen expose of one of the BBC's most popular entertainers and quizzing senior management about why they canned the bombshell program.
Monday night's powerful but often awkward broadcast centered on revelations that late children's television star Jimmy Savile was one of the country's most prolific predators, suspected of sexually assaulting more than 200 children over his decades-long career. The scandal's explosion has cut an ugly gash through the venerable broadcaster's public image, a wound made all the worse by the revelation that executives there scrapped what would have been a hard-hitting expose of Savile's misdeeds last year.
Tim Burt, a managing partner of the Stockwell Communications crisis management firm, said the BBC faces a major blow to its reputation at a time when it is entering delicate negotiations with the government about the terms of its charter.
"To have a civil war inside on a matter of editorial judgment and the handling of potentially criminal investigations could not have come at worse time," he said.
The broadcast set out to explain why the Savile investigation was never televised. The answer remains murkier than ever — the BBC stopped short of accusing any of its bosses of a cover-up — but viewers were given harrowing testimony about the scale of the abuse, including allegations that girls and, in at least one case, a boy, were forced to have sex with Savile in his car, his camper van, or dingy dressing rooms on BBC premises.
"I'm so full of self-disgust. I can't believe that I did such things," said Karin Ward, who described being cajoled into giving the presenter sexual favors when she was just a young teen. She said she should have tried to put a stop to it but "I didn't. None of us did."
The program was surreal in parts, not least because nearly all the children who surrounded Savile in archival footage were shown with their faces blurred out — each one of them a potential victim of sexual abuse. Also bizarre was the fact that the BBC was effectively conducting a televised inquisition into itself. One particularly striking scene involved a journalist bombarding BBC boss George Entwistle with questions on what appeared to be his morning commute.
"I've never seen an organization do such a knocking job on itself," commented ITV journalist Kenny Toal. "Fair play to the journalists who spoke up against their bosses."
BBC editor Peter Rippon — who stepped down temporarily only hours before the show was aired — was hit by some of the hardest knocks. Under fire from his two reporters, he was shown to have put out a series of misleading statements about the documentary. Emails appeared to show he was enthusiastic about the expose at first, but abruptly changed his mind for reasons that remain unexplained.
Reaction was mixed, with some viewers criticizing the BBC for not having pushed its executives harder. Others congratulated the broadcaster on a compelling broadcast that must have been difficult to organize. The Mirror's deputy television editor Mark Jefferies said in a message posted to Twitter that the program was "very thorough, compelling and depressing" and which he said showed the BBC "at its best."
"Sadly it was highlighting BBC at its worst," he said.
The scandal and the alleged cover-up have already drawn unusual criticism from the prime minister.
"The nation is appalled, we are all appalled by the allegations of what Jimmy Savile did and they seem to get worse by the day," David Cameron said earlier Monday.
The BBC can expect harsh treatment at the hands of Britain's newspapers, said Bob Calver, a lecturer in broadcast journalism at Birmingham City University. He suggested that publications from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire, which has been shaken by revelations of widespread criminality at its newspapers, would be particularly harsh.
"The print media will not let this story go," he said. "Because BBC was not implicated in the phone hacking scandal, it was pointing the finger at the print media, which has long felt that the BBC is smug and gets special treatment. This is an opportunity for the print media to come back at them."
There seemed to be every sign of that late Monday. Murdoch's The Sun newspaper said that BBC chiefs were "accused of betraying license fee payers by misleading the public over pervert Jimmy Savile." BBC's revenues are paid by license fees from viewers.
Asked how the BBC could have avoided some of the scandal, producer Meirion Jones answered: "Very easily. By broadcasting a story about Jimmy Savile and how he was a pedophile."
Associated Press writers David Stringer and Robert Barr in London contributed to this report.