UK broadcasters warned over 'witch hunt'

18:48, Nov 09 2012
ALLEGED COVER-UP: Late BBC children's television star Jimmy Savile has been accused of being one of the Britain's most prolific sex predators.
ALLEGED COVER-UP: Late BBC children's television star Jimmy Savile is suspected of being one of Britain's most prolific sex predators.

Since accusations surfaced last month that a renowned British TV host sexually abused young victims for decades without being exposed, scores of adults have come forward to claim that their own allegations of sex assault in the past were ignored.

Worries that Britain's institutions - and its media - have for years been too conservative in handling claims of child abuse have jolted the nation's public debate, prompting an abrupt turn that culminated in the prime minister being handed, on live television, a list of high-profile figures named in internet rumours as possible sex offenders and the very public assertion by a politician that he is not a child molester.

With the country reeling over how to respond to a torrent of new abuse claims, Prime Minister David Cameron warned the media and the public of the danger of shredding the reputations of innocent figures.

"Effectively, you are casting lots of aspersions about lots of people without any evidence," Cameron said. "You have to be careful you don't start some sort of witch hunt against some people who might be entirely innocent."

The BBC, already criticised over its reluctance to broadcast allegations of child abuse carried out by the late Jimmy Savile, one of its prominent stars, now faces questions about its handling of abuse accusations leveled against a senior political figure.

On Friday, Alistair McAlpine, a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords, identified himself as the target of online rumours - saying he was likely the political figure referred to, but not named, in a report by the BBC's "Newsnight" programme on allegations related to sex abuse in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s.

McAlpine, who was Conservative Party treasurer in the era of Margaret Thatcher, insisted he had never been involved in the abuse of children and suggested that he had been the victim of mistaken identity.

Last week "Newsnight" aired an interview with abuse victim Steve Messham, who claimed that previous reports into the Wales scandal had failed to examine abuse by someone he described as a senior Conservative Party figure at the time.

The BBC's decision to broadcast that claim came as it conducted an internal inquiry into why "Newsnight" had shelved an investigation into Savile late last year, weeks before the organisation screened tribute shows about his life and work. Savile, who presented music and children's shows on BBC, died in October 2011.

When its rival ITV aired allegations about Savile last month, the expose led to a widespread discussion of other, unrelated sexual abuse in Britain in the recent past - including cases in Wales in which Messham was a victim.

Amid frenzied speculation, Cameron was on Thursday handed a list of individuals who have been the subject of internet speculation during an interview by ITV's "This Morning" programme. In his haste, the show's presenter fleetingly showed the note to a camera, revealing some of the identities.

McAlpine said that rumours spreading online and the actions of the BBC and ITV had left him with little option other than to comment. "In order to mitigate, if only to some small extent, the damage to my reputation I must publicly tackle these slurs and set the record straight," he said in a statement.

The politician said that he had never abused Messham or any other child, and had never visited children's homes or a hotel in the Welsh town of Wrexham where the victim told the BBC that sex abuse had taken place.

The BBC said in a statement that its broadcast was in the public interest even as McAlpine's lawyer threatened to sue.

Meanwhile, Britain's television standards regulator Ofcom confirmed that it had received complaints about ITV's "This Morning" over its handling of the child abuse issue.

"The action of presenting a random list from the internet of alleged 'suspects' to the Prime Minister, live on television, was a grave error of judgment," said Conservative lawmaker Stuart Andrew, who is among those to have filed a complaint.