The BBC's Director-General last night attempted to head off the growing storm about its handling of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal by announcing two "forensic and soul-searching" internal inquiries. George Entwistle also expressed his "revulsion" at the DJ's alleged crimes.
Mr Entwistle, who is under fire for his role in the dropping of a Newsnight investigation into Savile, unveiled the BBC's response at a hurriedly arranged press conference after a week of snowballing claims from alleged victims laid the broadcaster open to accusations that it had turned a blind eye to the abuse.
A "profound and heart-felt" apology from Mr Entwistle came as the BBC was facing a multimillion-pound damages suit from women who claim to have been sexually assaulted by Savile, who died last year aged 84 after four decades building up his reputation as a flamboyant, eccentric fundraiser.
As the number of potential victims providing detailed accounts of molestation by the broadcaster rose to 40, a solicitor said she had been approached by former patients at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and was preparing a case seeking redress.
Liz Dux said the women – who could also sue the Buckinghamshire specialist spinal injuries hospital where Savile's fundraising activities led to him being provided with his own office – were not interested in the financial benefits of a claim and instead wanted a formal recognition of their grievances.
But with new allegations being made every day, it is likely that damages and legal costs could leave the BBC and the NHS facing a bill for several million pounds to settle the claims. The prospect of lawsuits will give added impetus to efforts by the police and the BBC to establish just what was known of the abuse by Savile, and when.
Mr Entwistle said the two internal reviews, to be headed by independent chairmen from outside the BBC, would look into the allegations that Savile assaulted young teenage girls over four decades and the extent of knowledge within the Corporation. A second review will look at the decision not to pursue the Newsnight investigation. He said: "The BBC will not avoid confronting its past, to understand what happened and to try and be sure that nothing of this kind can happen again."
Scotland Yard said last night it was now pursuing 340 lines of inquiry concerning Savile and was in contact with 14 other police forces. So far, 12 specific allegations of sexual assault have been identified. Ms Dux, a personal injury specialist who has previously acted for victims of child sexual abuse, said the BBC and hospitals where Savile was active as a fundraiser and volunteer would have had a duty of care to anyone who came into contact with him. She said: "The case would be against the BBC or the hospital because they would be held vicariously liable in law for the acts of someone like Savile who was acting as their agent."
A former BBC Radio 1 researcher told Channnel 4 News yesterday that he had heard the DJ boasting of having had sex with three 14-year-old girls in a single morning. Richard Pearson said Savile had explained that the sex "kept him young".
Meanwhile, it emerged that one of the BBC's most senior journalists, John Simpson, described in his autobiography how he heard allegations of sex abuse against a former BBC children's entertainer in the late 1960s but was admonished by his superiors and the story was covered up. The BBC is investigating the claims.
Q&A: The BBC and the Savile scandal
Q. What is the BBC now doing to get to the bottom of the Savile scandal?
A. After a week of insisting it could not launch its own investigation until police inquiries were ended, the Corporation last night sought to quell the storm by launching two independent reviews.
The first will look at the historic allegations against Savile, whether BBC staff, in particular managers, knew of his activities and why the DJ was able to assault underage girls for four decades, often on BBC premises.
The second will look at why a decision was taken last year to drop a Newsnight investigation into Savile and whether senior managers, including Entwistle, leaned on journalists. He strongly denies doing so, saying he deliberately sought no information about the investigation.
Q. How long will it take?
A. The BBC is still finalising the details of who will head the investigations. They will also have to run alongside the separate police inquiry, headed by Scotland Yard, but results should be expected by the end of the year.
Q. Will heads roll?
A. Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, has said that any current executive found as a result of the inquiries to have behaved improperly could not expect to survive. Entwistle last night refused to comment on whether he would resign if criticised, saying he did not want to pre-judge anything.
Q. What are the police investigating and how long will it take?
A. Scotland Yard has launched Operation Yewtree, staffed by 10 officers, to look into allegations against Savile spanning four decades. The inquiry has already received 340 lines of inquiry and identified 40 potential victims. It is being carried out jointly with the NSPCC and hopes to report by the end of November.
Q. Who is under investigation?
A. For the moment, only Savile. Police have been at pains to underline that only allegations concerning the DJ are being looked at and that the BBC itself is not under investigation. No one else who is still alive will be investigated unless there is evidence.
Q. What will happen?
A. If the allegations remain restricted to Savile, there will be no criminal charges because he is dead. A joint report will be drawn up outlining what facts have been established against the TV star and what lessons can be learned. However, if there is evidence against living individuals, there will be a full criminal inquiry. Civil damages claims against the BBC and hospitals are set to follow.
Cahal Milmo and Adam Sherwin