Legal letter raises doubts over ex-BBC chief Thompson's denial on Savile

Legal correspondence, sent on behalf of Mark Thompson, seems to undermine his claim not to have known of Savile sex abuse allegations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 2:32am

A legal letter sent on behalf of Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, seems to contradict his assertions that he learned of accusations of sexual abuse against longtime host Jimmy Savile only after leaving the corporation's top job.

In the letter, sent 10 days before Thompson left the BBC in September, lawyers representing him and another executive threatened to sue The Sunday Times of London over contentions in an article it was preparing that they had been involved in killing a BBC investigation of Savile.

Interviews show that the letter included a summary of the alleged abuse, including the allegation that some abuse may have occurred at the BBC.

People who have reviewed the private letter said it recounted that the proposed article in The Sunday Times Magazine would "look at a number of allegations regarding the behaviour of the late television and radio presenter, specifically that he took advantage of a series of young women. Some of the alleged assaults took place on BBC premises."

An aide to the former BBC chief said that although Thompson had orally authorised the sending of the letter, he had not known the details of its contents.

"It's not clear if he was shown it, but he doesn't remember reading it," said the aide, a personal adviser.

Thompson declined to comment. The timing and substance of the letter are significant because Thompson, who began work this week as president and chief executive of The New York Times, said in October that "during my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile".

There were other moments during Thompson's final months at the BBC - involving brief conversations and news articles appearing in London media - when he might have picked up on the gravity of the Savile case. But the letter is different because it shows Thompson was involved in an aggressive action to challenge an article about the case that was likely to reflect poorly on the BBC and on him.

It came as Thompson's appointment to The New York Times job was announced on August 14, and The Sunday Times article was likely to appear in late September or early October, just as he was making the transition from London to New York.

The scandal exploded early last month when a rival television network broadcast a documentary on the sexual abuse accusations against Savile, the host of children's and pop music shows, who retired in the mid-1990s and died in October last year. The revelation has led to a police investigation of hundreds of accusations of abuse, mostly from the 1970s, and it has also shaken the BBC, where lower-level editors killed the investigation by its Newsnight programme in December last year.

The existence of the letter from lawyers for the BBC was first reported last weekend by The Sunday Times. But only after its wording was described in interviews this week did it become clear the degree to which Thompson had access to information about Savile's alleged abuse and the scuttled Newsnight investigation.

Thompson said he was not aware of the Newsnight programme before it was killed in early December, and no evidence had emerged to challenge that. He acknowledges that a BBC reporter mentioned it to him a couple of weeks later at a company reception.

He said he raised the subject with news executives and was told that Newsnight had halted the probe for journalistic reasons and that there was nothing for him to be concerned with.