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NYT's Public Editor Questions 'Unwanted Baggage' of Incoming CEO Mark Thompson After BBC Coverup Scandal

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan challenged her paper on its incoming chief executive Mark Thompson, who was director general of the BBC when it "killed an investigative segment on its Newsnight program about a celebrity TV personality, Jimmy Savile, accused of sexually abusing hundreds of young girls."

In her Tuesday post, "Times Must Aggressively Cover Mark Thompson’s Role in BBC’s Troubles," Sullivan noted that "Killing the story has impugned the BBC’s integrity," and challenged the New York Times Co. on the issue of Thompson, who will become president and chief executive of the NYT Co. starting November 12. She wrote:

To its credit, The Times is reporting this story regularly through its London bureau, and has displayed it several times on the Web site’s home page. The London article was summarized in a brief on the front page on Tuesday.

Mr. Thompson has been quoted repeatedly saying he knew nothing about the investigation being conducted by the “Newsnight” program, or at least that he was never formally notified about it. Here’s The Guardian’s report on that.

Sullivan had some tough follow-ups:

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.

And for that matter, how likely is it that the Times Company will continue with its plan to bring Mr. Thompson on as chief executive? (It’s worth noting that as public editor, I have no inside knowledge on such corporate matters.) His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism -- profoundly. It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.

Sullivan offered some tough medicine for the Times, saying it "might start by publishing an in-depth interview with Mr. Thompson exploring what exactly he knew, and when, about what happened at the BBC" and asking itself about the implications of a CEO "arriving with so much unwanted baggage?"

The Times did cover the Thompson controversy in Wednesday's edition, Christine Haughney and David Carr reporting that "Former BBC Head Says He Had No Idea in Squelching Program."

Mark Thompson, the former head of the British Broadcasting Corporation who has been drawn into the scandal involving allegations of sexual abuse against the former television personality Jimmy Savile, reiterated in an interview on Tuesday that he was not aware of an investigative report prepared for the BBC program “Newsnight” into Mr. Savile’s behavior until after the investigation was canceled.

Both in the interview and in a letter to Parliament, Mr. Thompson, who is also the incoming chief executive of The New York Times Company, said that he was made aware that “Newsnight” had been investigating Mr. Savile only during a conversation with a reporter at a company holiday party last December.

Thompson said he was never told about the nature of the allegations.

Questions about Mr. Thompson’s degree of involvement come as he is preparing to take on his new role at The Times. He does not have a special contract and he or the company may end the agreement at any time. A New York Times spokesman said that while the newspaper’s board had been notified of the BBC matter, he was confident that Mr. Thompson will be the company’s chief executive.

“Mark will join The New York Times Company as president and CEO the week of Nov. 12,” said the spokesman in a statement. “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.”

Mr. Thompson said, “It is my belief that there isn’t anything in my participation or my role in this story that would impede my ability to join and work with my colleagues at The New York Times.”

Douglas Arthur, an equity analyst at Evercore Partners, an investment bank that follows The Times and currently has a buy rating on the stock, was more cautious. “It might make sense to delay his start date until there is more clarity on how this is going to play out in Parliament and in the U.K.,” he said. “Even if everything he has said to date is accurate, there is still a great deal of confusion around the actual facts of the case.”