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Incoming New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson “repeatedly missed opportunities” when he was director general of the BBC to learn why one of its news programs canceled an investigation into sex-abuse claims against entertainer Jimmy Savile, reports Matthew Purdy in The New York Times. Thompson “said he knew nothing of the Savile investigation before it was canceled by the editor of the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ program,” Purdy writes.
As for what he knew afterward, his statements have evolved: He first said he was unaware of the investigation, but then acknowledged he was subsequently told of its cancellation by a reporter at a cocktail party. He said while he “may have formed an impression” about possible areas of a Savile investigation, including his charity work, he was unaware of child-sexual-abuse accusations.
Other news organizations covered the “Newsnight” decision, and clips from coverage of the BBC were discussed in daily executive conference calls, Purdy writes. In testimony to Parliament, new DG George Entwistle explained that, in Purdy’s words, “only the rarest program issue reaches the director general.”
An incredulous member of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee, Damian Collins, said “if this doesn’t qualify, you wonder what the bar is.”
In New York, Times C-suite chronicler Joe Hagan says the “Newsnight” affair doesn’t look good for Thompson or Times Co. management, whether Thompson knew about it or not:
If Thompson seemed curiously incurious, so too does [publisher and Times Co. chairman Arthur] Sulzberger Jr. The family steward of the Times has said he fully stands behind Thompson, defending him with the same vigor he did reporter Judith Miller after the Iraq War. …
According to a person familiar with the situation, Sulzberger has not asked Thompson for emails or other records from his time at the BBC, nor done any further inquiries beyond what is reported in the newspaper.
“Given the cloud of ickiness around the whole thing,” Hagan writes, “one senior executive I spoke with wished Thompson would voluntarily decide not to take the job.”
David Warsh extols Thompson’s suitability as CEO but says the BBC/Savile situation is a “tragedy.”
The Times Co. search identified a splendid candidate to help the Times survive and prosper. There are not many such. The need is desperate. But Mark Thompson cannot help them now.
“He must go,” Warsh writes.
Forgive me, but nobody, or no organization, with any confidence in what they do – at least, one not under court supervision – would willingly sponsor someone to so slag them off, or allow someone to so arbitrarily speak in their name. But that is really the point: the Times, unnerved by so much transition and uncertainty, lacks confidence. And Margaret Sullivan has the savvy, or go-for-the-jugular instinct, to exploit that.
Thompson’s first day at The Times is scheduled for Nov. 12.