By Paul Sandle
LONDON (Reuters) - British police investigating alleged sexual abuse by BBC presenter Jimmy Savile launched a criminal inquiry on Friday, saying more than 200 potential victims had come forward since accusations he had preyed on children for decades.
Allegations that flamboyant Savile, who died last year, operated unhindered as a pedophile for years have rocked the publicly-funded broadcaster and have opened the floodgates to accusations against other celebrities.
Cigar-chomping Savile, knighted as a "Sir" by Queen Elizabeth, was one of the BBC's biggest names, and questions have been raised about whether the broadcaster turned a blind eye to his activities.
Rival channel ITV shattered Savile's reputation as a dedicated charity fundraiser when it broadcast interviews with women who said he abused them when they were as young as 12, sometimes on BBC premises.
London's Metropolitan Police, had previously said they would conduct only a review into the allegations, as Savile was dead and so that alleged victims could be officially acknowledged.
But the force said on Friday the review had been broadened into a criminal investigation because it had established in the last two weeks that there "are lines of inquiry involving living people that require formal investigation". Those people were not named, and the force did not elaborate further.
Police Commander Peter Spindler said a "staggering number" of potential victims had come forward to report sexual exploitation during their childhood, with more than 400 lines of enquiry being pursued.
"We are dealing with alleged abuse on an unprecedented scale," he said.
QUESTIONS FOR BBC
The scandal is an early crisis for the BBC's new director general George Entwistle, who took charge only last month.
He faces having to explain how the alleged abuse went on unchecked for so long in the organization, and whether it had later tried to cover up Savile's activities.
The scandal has also followed his predecessor across the Atlantic. Mark Thompson, the New York Times Co's incoming chief executive, ran the BBC when it dropped an investigation by its own Newsnight program into Savile last year.
Newsnight's editor, Peter Rippon, has said the program had been looking for evidence of institutional failings by police or prosecutors over the allegations against Savile, rather than the exposure of a dead celebrity, and had not found any.
However, a leaked internal email published in The Times on Friday cast doubt on that explanation, saying that the Newsnight program was indeed "focusing on allegations of abuse".
The broadcaster has launched two independent reviews of the allegations; one looking into unlawful conduct by Savile when he was working for the BBC and another to investigate why the Newsnight report was shelved.
A BBC spokeswoman said it would not be appropriate to comment further until the reviews had concluded.
As the allegations against Savile have mounted up, a number of people have come forward to the media claiming they had been targeted by other well-known figures in the entertainment industry.
(Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Tim Castle and Pravin Char)