(CNSNews.com) – An independent inquiry into the BBC’s Jimmy Savile sex scandal is examining questions about what former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson knew about the alleged abuse before he left the British media organization in September to become CEO of the New York Times Co.
A Conservative member of parliament, who is still awaiting replies to two letters sent to Thompson in recent weeks seeking answers, said from London Wednesday that if he were in New York he would be concerned about Thompson’s “failure to get his story straight.”
“Any further revelations about Mr. Thompson’s involvement are primarily a matter for the New York Times Company, its staff and its readers,” Rob Wilson told CNSNews.com.
Wilson served as ministerial aide to the government minister responsible for the culture, media and sport portfolio until a cabinet reshuffle last month. The House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee is holding hearings into the affair.
Thompson repeatedly has denied knowing, while at the BBC, of allegations that Savile – a celebrity TV personality who died at age 84 in October 2011 – had molested children over a four-decade period, sometimes on BBC premises.
The scandal broke early last month when rival television station ITV broadcast a documentary on the allegations. It emerged that shortly after Savile’s death, the BBC’s “Newsnight” program had launched an investigation into the sex abuse claims, but then dropped it.
Thompson says he played no role in the decision to kill the story – and that he was not aware of the abuse claims before he left the BBC on September 16. “During my time as director-general of the BBC I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile,” he told the New York Times on October 13.
Amid suspicion that the story was dropped because of a potentially embarrassing conflict with already-planned BBC tributes to Savile over Christmas 2011, the BBC commissioned an independent inquiry into whether inappropriate management pressure had been applied.
The inquiry’s chairman, former Sky News executive Nick Pollard, heard evidence from Thompson last week and expects to deliver his findings by mid-December.
Among the material Pollard has before him is information compiled by Stewart Purvis, a professor of television journalism at London’s City University and a former chief executive of ITN (which produces news for ITV).
Without coming to any conclusion about whether “Newsnight’s” editor was pressured by BBC managers to abandon the Savile story, Purvis has assembled and posted on his blog a comprehensive timeline of the affair.
It includes a list of “at least ten occasions [between February 2012 and September 2012] when Mark Thompson’s office received or should have received information about Savile’s alleged sexual assaults on BBC premises.”
Asked Wednesday whether he has provided that information to the investigators, Purvis replied by email: “I can confirm that the Pollard inquiry have seen all the evidence I have published.”
The ten occasions when Purvis believes Thompson’s office should have been alerted to the allegations include the days when British national newspapers published major stories about the allegations against Savile and accusations of a deliberate BBC cover up. (One Feb. 10 story was headlined: ‘BBC shelved Jimmy Savile sex investigation ‘to protect its own reputation.’”)
Daily electronic press cuttings on stories relating to the BBC, sent to the director-general’s office, should have included such stories, Purvis argues.
Further, he says Thompson’s office should have been aware when the BBC was approached by ITV for comment ahead of its planned broadcast of the Savile documentary.
Thompson, or his office, also should have been aware when his own lawyers – in a Sept. 6 letter – threatened to sue the London Sunday Times for libel if it went ahead with plans to publish a story suggesting he had played a role in the decision to kill the “Newsnight” story.
That lawyer’s letter was sent ten days before Thompson left the BBC, seemingly contradicting his assertion that “[d]uring my time as director-general of the BBC I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”
(A spokesman for Thompson told Purvis that Thompson had agreed to the decision to send the legal letter, but was not involving in its drafting.)
Queries sent to Ed Williams – a former BBC communications director who now holds a top private-sector PR position and is representing Thompson in the Savile/BBC matter – brought no reply by press time.
What did he know and when did he know it?
A key question is whether Thompson had anything to do with the decision to scrap the “Newsnight” story last December. “Newsnight” editor Peter Rippon, who has stepped aside pending the outcome of the inquiry, previously insisted the judgment call was his own – a step he said was taken for purely “editorial reasons.”
Also in question is when Thompson – who worked at the BBC in various news roles from 1979-2002 and then as director-general from 2004 until last September – learned about the alleged sex offenses.
“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 wrote in an Oct. 23 letter to Wilson, the Conservative MP.
After receiving the letter from Thompson in reply to one of his own, Wilson sent two more letters seeking additional answers. Wilson told CNSNews.com on Wednesday that he had yet to receive responses to either of the follow-up letters.
“Having initially denied completely that he heard any allegations about Jimmy Savile during his time as director-general, Mark Thompson has already had to revise his account several times,” he said. “I’ve written two further letters asking him to give straight and definitive answers but he has not responded.”
“I would be concerned about his failure to get his story straight if I were in New York,” Wilson said. “The BBC’s Pollard Inquiry may tell us more, but any further revelations about Mr. Thompson’s involvement are primarily a matter for the New York Times Company, its staff and its readers.”
Wilson said his main concern relates to the apparent culture at the BBC under Thompson’s tenure.
“The BBC failed to pass on significant evidence of serious criminal activity to the police. For almost a year it broadcast a completely misleading account of a public figure,” he said. “This was a betrayal of Savile’s victims and a betrayal of the BBC’s duty to the public.”
“If we accept what Mark Thompson has said, under Thompson’s management there seemed to be a pattern of behavior whereby difficult or controversial issues like this were kept away from those in charge of the BBC,” Wilson added. “I am determined that this must change. It will eventually be disastrous for the BBC if it does not.”
The New York Times, now under Thompson's leadership, continues to report on the BBC-Savile scandal.