Mark Thompson, the New York Times Co. chief executive, was director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation when a BBC news program into a massive child-sex abuse scandal involving veteran network entertainer Jimmy Savile was abruptly squashed. Uncertainty lingers as to just what (and when) Thompson knew about accusations against Savile and the cancellation of the program, questions that occasionally made it into the paper, but stopped after a report commissioned by the BBC gave Thompson a pass.
Journalist Maureen Orth has a useful new summary of what we know (and what we still don't know) on the web site of Vanity Fair.
Adding to the general chaos and mystery was the role played by former BBC director general Mark Thompson, who held that position until mid-September 2012. Despite press reports about the Savile scandal dating back to January 2012, including a detailed Oldie magazine article by Miles Goslett, Thompson has consistently claimed that he knew nothing of the swirling controversy of the Newsnight tributes fiasco until shortly before the ITV program aired, in October, after he had left. However, Goslett had made a Freedom of Information Act request to the BBC in April and called Thompson’s office in May. On September 6, in response to a series of specific written questions posed by the London Sunday Times Magazine probing into what Thompson knew about Savile and when, a letter was drafted on Thompson’s behalf by outside lawyers—not BBC lawyers—threatening libel action if The Sunday Times printed a story suggesting an intentional coverup. Thompson claims never to have read the letter, which one London legal observer finds “inconceivable. If he approved and hadn’t read it, he’s just as culpable.” Today, Thompson is the newly installed C.E.O. of The New York Times, which has been compelled to report on his “evolving” views of what he remembers. For all concerned, this story just keeps growing, like Topsy.
Of all those waiting to exhale in the wake of the Pollard Review, former BBC director-general Thompson, safely ensconced as the C.E.O. of The New York Times since November, has to be one of the most pleased. He has steadfastly maintained that he knew nothing of the row over Savile and hardly anything about the man himself. “I never worked with Jimmy Savile. I never worked in his department, or worked where he worked, or ever met him. I think he finished regular appearances in the early 90s, before I took over,” Thompson told me. “My clearest recollection of him is sitting at home watching him in my childhood and early teen years.” During Thompson’s tenure at the BBC, from 2004 until 2012, he said, “he appeared as a figure of the past. I think I’d heard he published a biography where he bragged about sexual conquests.”
After first telling the Times he had "never heard any allegations" about Savile at the BBC, he later admitted that after a conversation at a party he "formed the impression it (the Newsnight investigation) was about sex abuse." After relaying some more confusing shifts from Thompson, Orth sounded dubious:
Today it does not really seem to matter whether anyone can even parse that statement. Thompson has traded his role of heading his country’s most prestigious media empire for that of overseeing a much smaller, operation at this country’s most prestigious newspaper....At present, he is far from the BBC turmoil that began in his tenure, and Pollard has declared his support: “I have no reason to doubt what Mr. Thompson told us.”