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British TV hero abuse scandal puts BBC under pressure

October 14, 2012

Instantly recognisable with his platinum hair, garish tracksuits, jangling jewellery and huge cigars, the eccentric Savile was one of the top entertainers in British broadcasting from the 1960s to the 1980s.— File Photo by Reuters

LONDON: Jimmy Savile was one of Britain's best-loved television stars, but one year on from his death claims that he sexually abused underage girls have left his reputation in shreds and the BBC facing accusations of a cover-up.

Instantly recognisable with his platinum hair, garish tracksuits, jangling jewellery and huge cigars, the eccentric Savile was one of the top entertainers in British broadcasting from the 1960s to the 1980s.

But the BBC, the world's largest public broadcaster, is under growing pressure over whether it turned a blind eye to Savile's alleged activities on its premises even as it promoted him.

Claiming to have been the world's first disc jockey, Savile hosted “Top of the Pops”, the BBC's foremost music show and “Jim'll Fix It”, where he granted wishes to children.

In later life Savile, who died on October 2011 aged 84, threw himself into charity work, raising a reported #40 million ($65 million, 50 million euros) for good causes.

But an investigation broadcast last week by ITV, the BBC's rival private television station, carried accounts from several women who claimed Savile sexually abused them as teenage girls -- often in institutions he was seemingly helping.

A stream of other women have since come forward, sparking a police investigation.

The police have described Savile as a “predatory sex offender” who perpetrated abuse for four decades.

Detectives revealed Friday they were following 340 leads, and added on Sunday that there were 60 likely victims, with reports spanning from 1959 to 2006.

The leads include alleged incidents at the BBC and in hospitals where he volunteered. He even had his own room in Stoke Mandeville, the hospital for spinal injuries which was the birthplace of the Paralympic Games. He also frequently visited a school for troubled girls.

His alleged victims said they thought no-one would believe their word against that of an icon like Savile.

Such is the disgrace that the headstone on his grave has been taken down at his family's request and broken up and sent to landfill.

Some commentators are stunned that he was never stopped, though one ex-colleague said he fended off threats from the press by saying his fundraising for the many charities he supported would be choked off.

The BBC is to conduct its own probe into the “cesspit”, with some former staff saying Savile's behaviour was an open secret.

Following his death, a report for the BBC's Newsnight current affairs show containing allegations against him was dropped, the programme insists for editorial reasons, while the corporation went ahead with tribute shows to Savile.

Some British newspapers accuse the corporation of covering up a “scandalous culture” that existed within its walls, as rumours swirl about the possibility of other names being brought to the attention of police.

New BBC director-general George Entwistle on Friday announced two inquiries, one into whether there were failings over the abandoned

Newsnight probe and a second into the “culture and practices of the BBC” during the Savile years.

From Leeds in northern England, Savile was conscripted to work as a coal miner in World War II, but suffered serious spinal injuries in an explosion.

He was a professional wrestler before working as a club and pirate radio DJ.

In 1964 he became the first presenter of “Top of the Pops” and fronted the prime-time programme throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1975 and 1994 he also hosted “Jim'll Fix It”, where he made the modest dreams of young viewers come true. Children wrote in at a rate of 20,000 a week and revelled in repeating his catchphrases, including “Now then, now then” and “How's about that then?”.

“Now, a whole population feels dirty, stupid, guilty and angry,” columnist Deborah Orr wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

In his later years, Savile ran more than 200 marathons for charity, raising a small fortune for Stoke Mandeville Hospital's spinal injuries unit -- where allegations of Savile taking advantage of young patients are now emerging.

He struck up a rapport with Britain's royals and was reportedly an intermediary during the marriage of Prince Charles and the late Diana, princess of Wales.

In 1990 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and pope John Paul II.

Several newspapers are now campaigning for him to be stripped of the title.

Unmarried and by his own account “odd”, he claimed he had never been in love, saying more than a few hours with a woman gave him “brain damage”.

In sometimes terse interviews, he gave glimpses of a lonely lifestyle, living in a flat that had a room preserved as a shrine to his late mother.