Openness must prevail if BBC is to draw a firm line under scandal

It would appear that the only people not in on the ‘open secret’ about Jimmy Savile’s abuse of young girls were the great British public paying his wages. The revelation has prompted shock, outrage and disbelief. Indeed, the nation is so appalled that the Savile family has gone so far as to destroy his headstone, “out of respect for public opinion”.

That the abuse spanned four decades, that it involved girls as young as 13, that much of it took place on BBC premises and that people had to be facilitating Savile’s activities is more than enough to shake the foundation of trust on which the BBC is built.

Just weeks into the job, director general George Entwistle is facing one of the biggest scandals in the BBC’s history. With a police investigation likely to continue for a considerable amount of time, and with an internal inquiry to follow, it looks set to snowball into a crisis to dwarf even Queengate.

Much has been made of the culture that tolerated sexual harassment during the 1970s and 1980s, and the women we spoke to this week certainly corroborate the view that it was something that was prevalent throughout television, not just at the BBC.

And we should think twice before consigning such behaviour to a bygone era: just weeks ago, another thorn in the BBC’s side, Russell Brand, was chastised by co-star Billy Connolly for persuading an assistant to flash her breasts at him on a film set.

Permissiveness/perversity is one thing, paedophilia quite another. Sources describe the situation as “perilous” for the BBC; they question the decision to axe the Newsnight special, and who took it, and talk of a smoking gun.

However long the police inquiry takes, the BBC must quickly establish the facts about who knew what and when, and reveal the truth of what happened, however unpalatable.

It must also prove that an “organisation characterised by honesty and trust”, as Entwistle described it in his first speech, remains so. Stories abound of talent of all stripes, not just those with larger-than-life personas. One BBC source suggests that warnings were issued about one presenter a couple of years ago, stating that researchers and APs were not to be left alone with him. Nevermind giving him a wide berth, why wasn’t he fired?

Entwistle’s speech also acknowledged the gap between senior management and troops on the ground and he made great play of “working in an environment of creative confidence and respect – where nothing is unsayable, so long as you find the right way to say it”.

To overturn a culture in which people have either ignored wrongdoing, or been too scared to report it, is a huge undertaking but must be Entwistle’s priority. As he said himself, the corporation’s future depends on it: “There’s only one thing that will guarantee the future of the BBC – the continuing love and trust of our audiences.”