Jimmy Savile

Row casts shadow over NYT's new boss

New York Times' public editor questions whether newspaper should still hire former head of BBC, Mark Thompson

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 4:44am

The New York Times' public editor has questioned whether the newspaper's incoming chief executive, the former BBC head Mark Thompson, is fit to serve as the company's top official, as a scandal rocks Britain's most prestigious broadcaster.

"How likely is it that [Thompson] knew nothing?" Margaret Sullivan asked in a blog post on Tuesday. "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."

A New York Times spokesman declined to comment.

The BBC has been damaged by a scandal involving one of its most famous entertainers, the late Jimmy Savile, who is accused of sexually abusing hundreds of women and girls over the course of six decades.

Savile, the eccentric host of the Top Of The Pops music show, died last year at the aged 84.

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron said prosecutors will review the 2009 decision not to charge the television star.

"The Director of Public Prosecutions has confirmed that his principal legal advisor will again review the papers from the time when a case was put to the CPS for prosecution," Cameron told the parliament.

Thompson held the top job as director general at the BBC from 2004 until September and also held the title of editor-in-chief, according to a description of the Director General's duties on the BBC website.

No evidence has emerged in police and parliamentary investigations to show Thompson knew about the decision to pull the Newsnight exposé on the scandal or about Savile's alleged behaviour. Thompson told the newspaper he had heard about the probe from a reporter at a holiday party last December and followed up with two BBC News officials.

"I talked to senior management in BBC News and reported the conversation I had at the party and asked was there a problem," he said, adding that he was told the story would not be published "for journalistic reasons".

"I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable."

Thompson said he was never told about the nature of the allegations against Savile, nor did he ask, during his talks with the reporter and the officials.

The allegations enveloping the British broadcaster hinge partly on the BBC's decision last year to shelve a show at its flagship Newsnight program investigating Savile.

Rival broadcaster ITV aired a bombshell report this month about Savile and the claims against him, which were rumoured for years.

In her post, Sullivan commended the paper for "reporting this story regularly".

As public editor and a representative of readers, Sullivan writes about issues affecting the newspaper independent of News York Times management, including chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr and executive editor Jill Abramson.

Sullivan's post on Thompson follows New York Times former executive editor Bill Keller, who wrote a column last week drawing a parallel between Savile and Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was recently sentenced to what amounts to life imprisonment for molesting children.

The New York Times tapped Thompson in August as CEO - a role that had been vacant eight months after the company ousted its former CEO Janet Robinson last year.

Thompson is expected to start with the Times on November 12.

But the unfolding Savile scandal has also caught the attention of some media experts in the United States.

"The New York Times should delay (Thompson's) start date until there is more clarity," said Doug Arthur, an analyst with Evercore Partners who follows the New York Times.

"It seems to me he will have to attend a hearing in the UK parliament. That is going to be a distraction. It's unfortunate. It's an unexpected complication."

Additional reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse