BBC Scandal: What About Those Staff Meetings Promised by NY Times CEO Mark Thompson?

January 11, 2013 - 6:22 AM

Mark Thompson

New York Times Co. chief executive Mark Thompson said he would hold town hall meetings with the newspaper's staff early in the new year. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – As British police released a report Friday revealing the "unprecedented" scale of broadcaster Jimmy Savile’s pedophilia, the New York Times Co. remains mum about when its new chief executive Mark Thompson will hold planned town hall meetings to answer any questions his staff may have about the scandal that roiled his previous employer, the BBC.

The New York Times Company would not say this week when the meetings – which Thompson said last month would take place “early in the new year” – are to be held, or whether it will allow C-SPAN or other media coverage, to enable interested outsiders to follow the proceedings.

“We decline to comment,” the company’s executive director, corporate communications Abbe Serphos said in an emailed response to queries.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard on Friday released the results of a three-month investigation into Savile’s crimes. 

British police say the late BBC entertainer committed more than 200 sex crimes between 1955 and 2009, including 34 rapes. Most of the victims were children and teenagers. The report said Savile's sex abuse -- which took place in 57 medical facilities, including mental hospitals and a hospice, as well as 14 schools and 33 television or radio studios -- was "unprecedented in the UK."

Police said Savile used his celebrity status to "hide in plain sight." Commander Peter Spindler of the Metropolitan Police said Savile's offending was "vast, predatory and opportunistic."

Thompson served as BBC director-general (a role that incorporates that of chief executive and editor-in-chief of the public service broadcaster) from 2004 until last September, when he left to take the post in New York.

His departure from London came as a simmering scandal was erupting over a decision by the BBC’s Newsnight program to drop an investigation into child-sex-abuse claims surrounding Savile. Newsnight’s editor abandoned the story in December 2011, for what he said were legitimate journalistic reasons.

Statements made by Thompson shortly after he left the BBC gave rise to some confusion about exactly what he knew was being alleged about Savile. Specifically, he denied any knowledge of the fact the claims related to sexual abuse.

After weeks of the New York Times’ own news columns carrying reports on the affair – and on the questions swirling around Thompson – the new CEO at the end of his first week on the job issued a memo to staff on November 16 that made no reference to the Savile issue, but did announce plans for face-to-face meetings.

“To help us get to know each other better, we have scheduled Town Hall meetings with me for Monday, Dec. 17, and Tuesday, Dec. 18, in The Times Center and Wednesday, Dec. 19, at College Point [location of the paper’s printing works]. More details will follow soon,” said the memo, according to a report at the time by the Poynter Institute.

A week later Thompson flew to London where, on November 23, he gave evidence to an independent inquiry that had been commissioned by the BBC board to look into whether BBC management had inappropriately pressurized Newsnight to drop the Savile investigation.

That same day the inquiry chairman, former Sky News chief Nick Pollard, announced that his final report, originally expected by the end of November, would be delayed until mid-December, due to the volume of documents involved.

Thompson returned to New York where, on November 30, he sent out another memo, telling staff that due to the delayed release of the Pollard report he had decided to postpone the town hall meetings until “early in the new year.” This would enable those with questions about the BBC/Savile matter to study the report, “and I can address their questions on the basis of the facts,” he said.

Pollard duly released his report on December 19. He found no evidence that Newsnight had killed the Savile story for “improper” reasons, but cited “a critical lack of leadership” during what he called “one of the worst management crises in the BBC’s history.”

Pollard accepted Thompson’s word that although he had been told Newsnight had been working on a story on Savile, he was not aware of the substance.

“Mr. Thompson said that this [decision to drop a story for editorial reasons] struck him as entirely normal, and that he did not learn any specifics of the investigation, and remained ignorant of the fact that the investigation was into allegations of sexual abuse,” Pollard wrote in his report.

Furthermore, Thompson said several times after leaving the BBC that, while in the top London job, he had never once heard the claims about Savile’s predatory behavior (see below for a list of those statements.)

The subsequent emergence of a letter written by lawyers acting on Thompson’s behalf and dated September 6 – 10 days before he left the BBC – raised fresh questions about that claim.

The letter, which threatened to sue the London Sunday Times if it went ahead with plans to publish a story alleging Thompson had been involved in suppressing the Newsnight investigation, referred clearly to “sexual offenses.”

But Pollard in his report accepted Thompson’s explanation that although he was aware of the legal letter’s existence, he did not recall being briefed about its contents and was “very clear” that he “didn’t read the detail of the letter.”

‘Contradictions’

On December 20, the day after Pollard released his report, NYT executive editor Jill Abramson in a meeting with newsroom staff expressed hope that it “clarifies Mark’s role at the BBC” – but also confirmed that Times reporters were continuing to look into the matter.

“As executive editor, my first responsibility is to cover the BBC story with the thoroughness and depth it deserves,” she said. “A team of reporters, including investigations editor Matt Purdy, who is one of the sharpest diggers in the business, is still on the story.” Abramson’s remarks were posted on Jim Romenesko’s blog on media matters.

She told staff she had found Thompson impressive, adding, “I know Mark is eager to introduce himself to the newsroom and that he will impress you, too.”

Meanwhile, despite the fact Thompson was spared blame in the Pollard report the chairman of a British parliamentary committee still has questions for him.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the House of Commons culture committee, said after the report’s release that he remains troubled by what he believes may be contradictions between statements made by Thompson himself, and what the inquiry found.

“I do intend to write to Mark Thompson,” London’s The Independent quoted Whittingdale as saying earlier. “The Pollard report does not appear to deal with the question of to what extent Mark Thompson was previously aware of the Savile program.”

“There are contradictions between what he has said and the evidence contained in the report and that is something which we [the Commons media select committee] would want to hear more from him about.”

Whittingdale could not be reached for further comment this week.

Timeline of Thompson’s statements denying knowledge of Savile pedophile allegations

Sept. 16, 2012:  Thompson leaves the BBC, ahead of taking up the post of president and CEO of the New York Times Co.

Oct. 13:  After a rival TV network in early October airs a documentary on the Savile claims, Thompson issues a statement saying, “I was not notified or briefed about the ‘Newsnight’ investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation. During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”

(Several days later it emerges that Thompson had in fact been made aware of the Newsnight investigation, during a brief conversation with a reporter at a company Christmas drinks party in December 2011. British lawmaker Rob Wilson then wrote to Thompson, seeking answers.)

Oct. 23: Thompson in a letter of reply to Wilson writes: “I was never formally notified about the ‘Newsnight’ investigation and was not briefed about the allegations they were examining and to what extent, if at all, those allegations related to Savile’s work at the BBC.”

He confirms the brief cocktail party conversation had taken place, but says the reporter had not mentioned what allegations were being investigated against Savile.

Thompson tells Wilson further that, throughout his BBC career, he had never heard allegations about Savile’s alleged abusive behavior.

“In the broader matter of Jimmy Savile’s alleged wrong-doing, I have no knowledge of any complaints or queries about him or his behavior during my time as DG (2004-2012), nor in my previous long period as a BBC manager.” (Thompson joined the corporation in 1979 as a production trainee and held management positions from 1996 onward. Savile’s BBC career ran from 1964 to 1994, with subsequent guest appearances as late as 2006.)

“I understand that some people claim to have known about these allegations. I never heard them or indeed any allegations of anything either criminal or anti-social that he was said to have done. If I had, I would have raised them with senior colleagues and contacted the police.”

Oct. 23: The NYT publishes a report on an interview in which Thompson says that during the cocktail party conversation he had not asked for specifics of the Newsnight investigation, but that he had brought up the matter with BBC News staff the following day.

He says that neither at the Christmas party nor the next day was he told the substance of the allegations against Savile, nor had he asked.

“Had I known about the nature of the allegations and the credible allegations that these horrific crimes had taken place during his time at the BBC and in the building at the BBC, I of course would have considered them very grave and would have acted very differently.”

Oct. 23: In a further report, the NYT quotes Thompson as saying, “I knew about its [the Newsnight investigation’s] existence. But I was told however the program decided to stop it … I was not given any detail of what the program had been investigating.”

Nov. 23: Thompson flies to London to give evidence to the Pollard inquiry. Pollard would later report that Thompson told him that “he did not learn any specifics of the [Newsnight] investigation, and remained ignorant of the fact the investigation was into allegations of sexual abuse.”