British MP Says He Can't Get Answers From NY Times CEO Mark Thompson Regarding BBC Child Sex Abuse Scandal

December 18, 2012 - 6:02 AM

Mark Thompson

A British lawmaker says he has not been able to get answers from New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson about what he knew of the Jimmy Savile child sex abuse scandal before Thompson left the BBC in September. (Photograph by Dave Thompson/Press Association via AP Images)

(CNSNews.com) – As an independent review into the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile child sex scandal prepares to release its findings, a British lawmaker says he has yet to get satisfactory answers from New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson about what he knew of the abuse allegations before he left his BBC director-general post in September.

Not only has Thompson not replied to three letters sent since late October, Conservative MP Rob Wilson told CNSNews.com Monday, but the New York Times editorial page editor also declined to publish a letter submitted this month – on grounds Wilson found puzzling.

Wilson voiced concerns “about whether the CEO of the New York Times Company has lived up to the ethical code expected of the company’s journalists.”

After veteran TV personality Jimmy Savile died in October 2011 allegations emerged that he had molested children over a four-decade period, sometimes on BBC premises. (British police announced last week that 450 people had come forward with information and that Savile was now a suspect in an unprecedented 199 alleged crimes – most involving children or young people.)

After Savile’s death BBC’s Newsnight program began investigating the allegations but dropped the story in December 2011, for what the program’s editor said were purely journalistic reasons. Last October a rival television network aired a documentary on the claims, and suspicions that Newsnight had abandoned its investigation to avoid an awkward clash with planned BBC tributes to Savile over the Christmas period.

The BBC then commissioned an inquiry led by Nick Pollard, a former head of Sky News, into why Newsnight had chosen not to run the story. Pollard, who has heard evidence from witnesses including Thompson, is expected to deliver his findings to the corporation’s board this week, possibly as early as Wednesday.

Thompson says he had no knowledge of the “Newsnight” investigation and played no role in the decision to kill the Savile abuse story.  Moreover, he says that until he departed the BBC on September 16, he was not aware of the allegations about Savile’s predatory behavior.

On October 13 – between leaving the BBC and taking up the reins in New York – Thompson told the New York Times, “During my time as director-general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.” In a letter to Wilson 10 days later he reiterated that assertion.

Since receiving that October 23 letter, Wilson says he has written to Thompson three times with follow-up questions, but has yet to hear back.

In a new development on December 2, the London Sunday Times reported that internal BBC emails, obtained under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act, evidently raised fresh questions about what Thompson may have known as early as February 2012.

The article prompted Wilson to email a letter to the New York Times editorial page on December 4, with the subject line, “Did Mark Thompson tell me the truth?” It reads in full:

Dear Sir,

You reported last week that The New York Times Company’s chief executive appeared at a London inquiry into the BBC’s Jimmy Savile scandal (“Top BBC Figures Acknowledge ‘Errors’ in Reporting Scandals“).

New claims reported in Britain on December 2 that Mr. Thompson was emailed by two close BBC aides about the Savile scandal on February 8 have left me uncomfortable about his statement to me in a letter on October 23 that he ‘never heard any allegations’ about Savile during his time as BBC director-general.

Mr. Thompson has not answered three letters I have sent him seeking clarification since October 23.

The New York Times Company’s policy on ethics in journalism states: “We tell our audiences the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. We correct our errors explicitly as soon as we become aware of them.”

Mr. Thompson must now give a clear public account of what he knew and when.

Rob Wilson MP
House of Commons

As the letter was not published, Wilson emailed it again to the New York Times on December 11, with a note asking whether it had been received the first time.

A reply the same day from editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal said: “We received your letter this morning, for the first time. Since it it is not a letter responding to one of our news stories, I have passed it on to Mark Thompson.” The email was copied to Robert Christie, senior vice president of corporate communications at the New York Times Co.

‘Letters team seemed to want to ignore the issue’

Wilson told CNSNews.com he found Rosenthal’s response “rather strange.”

“Firstly they denied having received my letter, even though I sent it by email and received several automated confirmations of receipt. Secondly, the letters column refused to engage with my letter on the grounds that it did not relate to an article in the paper, even though I clearly made reference to an article from a few days before.”

“The latest revelations raise very serious questions about whether the CEO of the New York Times Company has lived up to the ethical code expected of the company’s journalists,” Wilson said.

“Some of the New York Times’ editors and columnists have been admirably candid about their concerns about Mark Thompson – up until now. I was therefore surprised that the paper’s letters team seemed to want to ignore the issue and their choice of reasons for doing so,” he added.

The paper’s guidelines for letter submissions say they “should be no longer than 150 words, [and] must refer to an article that has appeared within the last seven days.”

Wilson’s 154-word letter was originally sent on December 4, exactly seven days after the article he referenced was published. (Although Rosenthal did not cite the word count, that does not appear to have presented a problem; of nine letters published on Monday, one ran to 193 words and another to 160.)

Neither Rosenthal nor Christie had responded by press time to queries sent on Monday afternoon.

CNSNews.com asked Rosenthal about the decision not to publish Wilson’s letter and the reason given.

Christie was asked whether Thompson had received Wilson’s three letters, and whether the New York Times Co. was satisfied with Thompson’s assurances that he was not aware, during his tenure at the BBC, of the Savile sex abuse allegations.

Christie was also asked whether the company had held an inquiry of any kind into the matter, or whether it intended to do so.

According to the BBC, the Pollard inquiry “will establish whether there were any failings in the BBC’s management of the Newsnight investigation relating to allegations of sexual abuse of children by Jimmy Savile, including the broadcast of tribute programs on the BBC.”

“This will encompass the BBC’s handling of material derived from the investigation that could have been of interest to the police or relevant authorities and whether any inappropriate managerial pressure or consideration may have influenced the decision of the Editor of Newsnight.”

London’s City University professor of television journalism Stewart Purvis noted on his blog this week that the question of what Thompson knew, and when, about the Savile allegations was not within the terms of reference of the inquiry.

“[B]ut as he was interviewed by the Pollard team it would be interesting to know if what Mark Thompson told Pollard is the same as what he originally told MP Rob Wilson,” Purvis wrote.