'New York Times' top man starts under dark cloud of BBC Savile abuse scandal

Wed, Oct 31, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:A programme about Jimmy Savile’s abuse was shelved on Mark Thompson’s watch, writes JOE NOCERA

THE POSITION of chief executive of the New York Times is not the easiest to fill. There are, to start with, the obvious business challenges: like all newspaper companies, the Times has struggled financially as the internet has eroded its traditional revenue sources.

Its third-quarter results announced last Thursday, were typical: they reported a 9 per cent drop in advertising revenues and an 85 per cent decline in net income compared with 2011. Its battered stock price tumbled another 22 per cent.

Then there is the Sulzberger family, which controls the Times Co. Arthur Sulzberger jnr is both the company’s chairman and the publisher of the flagship newspaper. Seven other family members work at the Times.

No chief executive should expect that they would be able to make decisions independent of the Sulzbergers. The previous chief executive, Janet Robinson, left abruptly in December amid speculation her relationship with Sulzberger had become strained.

So it was with no small relief that, after a lengthy search, Sulzberger announced in mid- August that Mark Thompson, the departing director general of the BBC, had agreed to take the job.

Although the BBC has a radically different business model from the Times – it gets most of its money from an annual fee levied on every British television watcher – his tenure as the BBC’s boss included an international expansion and strong digital growth, two areas where the Times could use his skills.

Thompson is scheduled to start on November 12th. His nameplate is on his office wall. He is getting to know some employees. Yet, since early October, all anybody has asked about Thompson are those two most damning of questions: what did he know and when did he know it?

The questions are being asked in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal engulfing the BBC. Savile has been accused of being an incorrigible paedophile; the number of young girls he is said to have molested could run into the hundreds.

Although he stopped being a BBC regular in the mid-1990s, his enduring fame was such that when he died last autumn, people in his home town of Leeds lined the streets to mourn his passing.

Soon after his death, the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs programme began an investigation into Savile’s sexual proclivities. Yet despite getting at least one woman on tape who said she had been molested by Savile, the piece was killed.

Then, this month, ITV ran a devastating expose of Savile. The ITV investigation raised questions about whether the BBC had covered up Savile’s wrongdoing.

Plainly, the answer is yes. What is far less certain is how high the cover-up went. Thompson first said that he never heard the rumours about Savile and that he did not learn about the Newsnight programme until after it was cancelled. Given the Byzantine nature of the BBC bureaucracy, these are plausible denials.

Here is where it gets tricky. Thompson now says that at a cocktail party in December, a BBC reporter said to him: “You must be worried about the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile.”

Soon thereafter, Thompson asked his underlings about the investigation and was told it had been killed – for journalistic reasons. He claims to have inquired no further, not even to ask what it was about.

A few months later, the news broke in the British press that the BBC had, as the Daily Mail put it, “shelved Jimmy Savile sex abuse investigation to protect its own reputation”.

Given the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations, you would think that Thompson and his underlings would immediately want to get to the bottom of it. But, again, they did nothing.

Thompson winds up appearing wilfully ignorant and it makes you wonder what kind of an organisation the BBC was when Thompson was running it – and what kind of leader he was.

It also makes you wonder what kind of chief executive he would be at the Times.

Arthur Sulzberger is in a difficult spot. He believes strongly that he has got the executive he needs to lead the Times to the promised land of healthy profits again. Although he declined to be interviewed for this column, he appears to have accepted Thompson’s insistence that he knew nothing about the explosive allegations that became public literally 50 days after he took the Times job. Sulzberger is backing his man unreservedly.

For the sake of Times employees – not to mention the readers who want to see a vibrant New York Times Co – let’s hope his faith in Thompson is warranted. Otherwise, the BBC won’t be the only organisation being asked tough questions about its judgment. – (New York Times service)

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