The sexual abuse scandal that’s rocking the BBC has reached our shores in the person of Mark Thompson, the former BBC director general who was recently named CEO of the New York Times. Thompson managed the BBC when the broadcaster canceled a sexual abuse investigation focused on the late television host Sir Jimmy Savile.
Savile, who died last year, is alleged to have raped and sexually abused hundreds of girls and women during his lifetime. The Daily Beast reports:
Allegations of Savile’s misconduct long circulated among journalists, but in the months after his death “Newsnight,” the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, vigorously investigated the charges, speaking to victims and documenting numerous allegations against the star. Last December, “Newsnight” abruptly canceled the segment, although it’s still unclear who pulled the plug, and why.
In a recent statement, Thompson maintained his innocence:
“I was not notified or briefed about the “Newsnight” investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation,” Thompson said in a statement released Monday. He added that during his tenure as director general, he “never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile,” and believed that the decision to cancel the investigation “was made solely for journalistic reasons.”
Thompson has since amended his original statement, however, saying that he did discuss the investigation at a party, but “did not go into what ‘Newsnight’ was investigating.”
The Times’ own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, remains skeptical of Thompson’s role in the scandal and how that will affect the Times’ coverage of it. On Wednesday, Sullivan wrote, “One of the most difficult challenges for news organizations is reporting on what goes on inside their own corporate walls.” The post continued:
How likely is it that he knew nothing? A director general of a giant media company is something like a newspaper’s publisher. Would a publisher be very likely to know if an investigation of one of its own people on sexual abuse charges had been killed? The answer to that is not as easy as it sounds. Because of the intentional separation between editorial and business-side operations, publishers usually don’t know about editorial decisions — unless they are very big ones, fraught with legal implications. A Reuters story explores this subject.
…What are the implications of these problems for him as incoming Times chief executive? What are the implications for the Times Company to have its new C.E.O. – who needs to deal with many tough business challenges here – arriving with so much unwanted baggage?
As the BBC has found out in the most painful way, for The Times to pull its punches will not be a wise way to go.
Despite Sullivan’s reservations, the Times says it will proceed as planned. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the company and publisher of the newspaper, wrote that Thompson “possesses high ethical standards and is the ideal person to lead our Company,” and, addressing Sullivan’s concern, noted that “we will cover the Savile story with objectivity and rigor. Mark endorses that completely as do I.”
Thompson is scheduled to join the Times on Nov. 12.