The sex abuse/editorial scandal plaguing the BBC is starting to reach across the pond. Mark Thompson, the former head of the BBC and the incoming CEO of The New York Times Company, has reiterated to the newspaper that he was not aware of the BBC’s Newsnight investigation into sexual abuse allegations against late TV host Jimmy Savile until after the report was spiked. Thompson’s comments to the Times run in an interview that appears in today’s paper – a day after Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan wrote, “How likely is it that (Thompson) knew nothing?” and suggested it was “worth considering whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.”
A New York Times spokesman said, “Mark will join The New York Times Company as president and CEO the week of Nov. 12. We believe his experience and accomplishments make him the ideal person to take the helm of the Times Company as we focus on growing our businesses through digital and global expansion.” But Douglas Arthur, an analyst at Evercore Partners, has said it would be advisable to “delay” Thompson’s start until the situation shakes out in the UK. Independent reviews are underway at the BBC on the Savile allegations as they relate to the corporation and on the controversial killing of the Newsnight piece. Thompson’s successor, George Entwistle, was grilled on the matters for two hours yesterday by a parliamentary select committee.
Thompson, who was at the head of the BBC from 2004 and left in September, told the NYT he learned that Newsnight had been investigating late Top Of The Pops host Savile during a conversation with a reporter at a holiday party last December, the same month the story was killed. Thompson also tells the Times that the next day he spoke to “senior management in BBC News and reported the conversation I had at the party and asked was there a problem.” He adds, “There is nothing to suggest that I acted inappropriately in the handling of this matter.”
Last evening, according to the London Times, British MP Rob Wilson wrote to Thompson posing this question: “Given that Savile was a high-profile BBC employee for several decades, why did you not take any steps to establish whether or not the investigation was in any way related to the BBC or would have any bearing on the corporation’s reputation?”
Thompson has maintained that he didn’t know what allegations Newsnight was investigating. His spokesperson told The Guardian, “The first time he became aware of the allegations that Savile had committed serious crimes and that some had taken place in the course of his employment at the BBC was when he heard the pre-publicity” for the recent ITV investigation that blew the lid off of the sex abuse claims against Savile. Thompson tells the New York Times today, “Had I known about the nature of the allegations and the credible allegations that these horrific crimes had taken place during his time at the BBC and in the building at the BBC, I of course would have considered them very grave and would have acted very differently.”