Agence France-Presse

NYT's new president buffeted by BBC sex abuse storm

The British public doesn't appear much interested in Mark Thompson's involvement in the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Credit: Ben Stansall

LONDON, UK — When Mark Thompson quit as director general of the BBC earlier this year, he left the publicly funded broadcaster in such solid shape that he was able to parlay his success into a prized job at the helm of The New York Times.

But several weeks later, his position as CEO of America’s paper of record appeared to face uncertainty thanks to a major sex scandal that’s cast the BBC’s future into doubt.

Under different circumstances, Thompson's role in the scandal surrounding Jimmy Savile — a television celebrity exposed as a predatory sex offender — would probably have only added an inconsequential footnote to the sorry saga.

Instead, Thompson has found himself held to seemingly greater account than many deem fair.

In the most recent of several soul-searching Times pieces about Thompson, columnist Joe Nocera asked whether the incoming CEO's apparently blithe incuriosity about the Savile affair undermined his suitability for the job.

But despite some internal anguish at the BBC and among media circles about Thompson's future, the British public appears largely indifferent. Asked about Thompson, the response of laborer Lee MacLean, 24, was representative: "I've never heard of him."

Like most British, however, MacLean is very aware of the Savile sex scandal, thanks to several weeks of shocking newspapers headlines.

The BBC broadcaster, who died last year aged 84, is accused of raping or abusing at least 300 people, mainly young girls and boys he met at the BBC or hospitals and schools where he did charity work. Other celebrities are suspected of involvement, including the disgraced rock star Gary Glitter, whom police arrested last week.

There has been a public outcry over allegations that senior figures at the BBC and other institutions who were aware of Savile's predilections chose to ignore them.

But Thompson was appointed BBC director in 2004, when Savile was effectively retired. He’s unlikely to ever face questions about the conduct of staff during the five decades Savile was active.

Thompson enjoyed a largely blemish-free career. Educated at Oxford University, he joined the BBC as a production assistant in 1979. Rising steadily through the editorial ranks, he left in 2002 to become chief executive at the commercial network Channel 4.

After returning to the BBC as director general two years later, he presided over major cuts to news operations as he readied the organization for the digital age. The real headaches started only after he announced earlier this year that he’d be stepping down in September.

Thompson's problem concerns the weeks after Savile's death in late 2011, when journalists working for the BBC's Newsnight current affairs show began uncovering claims of child abuse. Their report, which would have coincided with a fulsome BBC tribute to the presenter last Christmas, was subsequently shelved.

The BBC will hold an internal investigation into Savile's activities, and has already begun another into why Newsnight dropped its report. There have been allegations of a cover-up and, amid hand-wringing about the BBC’s betrayal of trust, questions about how much Thompson knew.

He has given conflicting accounts about his knowledge of the Newsnight story, but appears to have known about both the initial reporting and the decision to abort the program. Media observers and Times staff have questioned why he never took it upon himself to make further inquiries into such a significant issue.

In a BBC documentary examining the Newsnight affair, the BBC's own foreign editor John Simpson expressed fears about the impact it would have on the organization. He described it as "the worst crisis" he’s seen in his 50-year career.

Funded by an annual $230 fee levied on all television-watching households, the BBC has endured numerous scandals during its 85-year history.

In 2004, a government inquiry triggered the resignation of Thompson's predecessor, Greg Dyke, by finding fault with BBC reporting on a "sexed-up" dossier used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Among several incidents under Thompson's watch, footage of Queen Elizabeth was misleadingly edited to make it appear as if she had angrily stalked away from a photo shoot with Annie Liebowitz.

Although Savile's sex crimes eclipse those incidents, the Newsnight affair and Thompson's involvement is unlikely to have much impact on the public. Many believe the broadcaster will survive largely intact.

"It's like drinking tea or eating fish and chips: It's a part of British life you can't take away," said taxi driver Andy Skinner. "Jimmy Savile was a monster and what he did is appalling, but it's all in the past. You can't blame people at Beeb [BBC] now for what happened then."

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Some of those who knew Thompson was paid nearly $1 million a year at the BBC and is set for a significant pay raise at the Times, admit to a degree of schadenfreude in watching his current predicament.

"There are colleagues who have been quite gleeful about the bad press [Thompson] has got because of this," said one BBC worker who asked not to be named.

"Whether it makes him a bad prospect for the New York Times, I'm not sure. The whole Newsnight thing happened on his watch so I suppose he's got to take some flak for it, that's why he gets the big pay packet."

Realtor Alice Saunders, although previously unaware of Thompson's New York Times job, said she believed he had proved himself unsuitable for it.

"He was the boss and Jimmy Savile was a big deal,” she said. “If it was my company and I heard that one of my best employees might be a massive pedophile, I wouldn’t sit around doing nothing. [Thompson] should have known what was going on. I wouldn't hire him." 

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