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Andreas Whittam Smith: It seems like a BBC cover-up

Covering up mistakes is a common failing, almost natural. We do it in our private lives and institutions do it in their corporate lives. This week, the BBC stands in the dock for its handling of allegations of child abuse by the late Jimmy Savile.

Cover-ups and non cover-ups often begin in the same way, with a flat denial. The BBC said it had investigated allegations of misconduct by Savile during his time at the BBC, but "no such evidence has been found… it is simply not possible for the Corporation to take any further action". It also said it hadn't shelved an investigation after uncovering information about abuse. The charge was "absolutely untrue".

The question however is whether the Corporation engaged in a passive cover-up. Did it fail to act when presented with incriminating evidence? Was it silent when it should have been in touch with the police? After all, as Lynn Barber, who interviewed Savile for the Independent on Sunday in 1990, wrote at the time: "There have been persistent rumours about him for years and journalists have often told me as fact: Jimmy Savile? Of course you know he is into little girls."

In this light to me it's clear that the BBC has been involved in a passive cover-up. Lynn Barber reported what was common knowledge in 1990. For days, the BBC has insisted it has never received any complaints about Savile's behaviour. It has also repeatedly said that a decision to shelve the Newsnight investigation was taken for "editorial" reasons.

But the test is not whether Savile acted improperly on BBC premises or during the making of a BBC show, but whether he may have carried out indecent assaults in any circumstances at all. Where reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence exists, your duty does not stop at your front door. At a certain point, the persistence of rumours, of a strength sufficient to generate a Newsnight investigation, has to be taken as the proverbial smoke that indicates fire. The chairman, Lord Patten, must order an investigation of what seems to have been the Corporation's sins of omission.

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