By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's globally respected broadcaster, the BBC, was told on Thursday it was guilty of serious failings in its handling of Jimmy Savile, a celebrated TV and radio showman revealed after death to have been one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders.
Warnings about Savile's conduct went unheeded for decades, a damning report by a former judge said on Thursday. It found no evidence of a cover-up by the BBC as an institution, however.
The report said there had been - and still was - a prevailing, macho culture at the publicly-funded broadcaster in which staff were fearful of making complaints, especially about its top stars known internally as "The Talent".
That meant senior managers were kept in the dark, concluded the report's author, former Appeal Court judge Janet Smith. But a lawyer for Savile's victims called the findings a "whitewash" and implausible.
The Savile scandal burst into public view in 2012 when British police said Savile, one of Britain's best-known celebrities, had abused hundreds of victims, mainly youngsters, over six decades until his death aged 84 in 2011.
Some of the abuse took place at hospitals where he was renowned for his charity work. He was knighted for the latter.
The revelations plunged the BBC, funded by an annual license fee and known around the world for its news and dramas, into crisis and prompted allegations the broadcaster had covered up his crimes.
"It seems to me that the BBC could have known," the broadcaster's director general, Tony Hall, told a media conference. "Just as powerful as the accusation 'you knew', is the legitimate question: 'How could you not have known?'"
The Smith report concluded Savile had abused 72 victims in relation to his BBC work over almost 50 years. These included eight rapes, including of a boy, 10, and a girl, 13. The youngest victim was eight.
Smith said there had been five missed opportunities to uncover his misconduct and that of fellow BBC personality Stuart Hall, who was jailed in 2013 for child sex crimes.
Reports were made by staff, but these were never escalated due to a culture of "not complaining about anything". Employees were reluctant to say anything to management which might "rock the boat", for fear it might damage career prospects or even lead to dismissal.
When one employee said Savile had put his hand up her skirt, she was told "keep your mouth shut, he's a VIP", the report said.
"Celebrities were treated with kid gloves and were virtually untouchable," Smith told reporters.
Savile, a one-time wrestler with trademark long blonde hair, a love of cigars and a penchant for garish outfits and jewelry, started out as a pioneering DJ in the 1960s and went on to host some of the BBC's biggest prime time TV shows.
Smith found that 117 witnesses had heard rumors about Savile's sexual conduct but there was no evidence that the BBC, as a corporate body, was aware.
"This report makes sorry reading for the BBC," Smith said in the conclusion of her 372,400-word report, which took two-and-a-half years to complete at a cost of 6.5 million pounds ($9 million).
Rona Fairhead, chairman of governing body the BBC Trust, said the events were a source of deep regret and shame. The director general promised to do "everything possible" to ensure it never happened again.
"We understand that what happened had its roots in an organization that was too hierarchical and too self-absorbed to be able to act properly on the disturbing stories individuals had heard," Hall said.
Liz Dux, a lawyer representing some of Savile's victims, said her clients would feel let down by the report.
($1 = 0.7155 pounds)
(Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Mark Trevelyan)