Emails Raise New Questions About When NY Times CEO Learned of BBC Child Sex Scandal

December 3, 2012 - 5:50 AM

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson, the former BBC director general and new CEO of The New York Times Co., arrives at the paper’s offices on Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/UK Broadcasters Pool)

(CNSNews.com) – New information published in a British newspaper Sunday raised fresh questions about New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson’s assertions that he knew nothing about a child sex scandal before his tenure as director-general of the BBC ended in September.

The London Sunday Times reported that internal BBC emails released under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act indicate that Thompson was contacted personally about the Jimmy Savile affair last February.

Shortly after the TV personality died in October 2011, allegations emerged that he had molested children over his lengthy career, sometimes on BBC premises, including in Savile’s own dressing-room. BBC’s “Newsnight” program began working on the story, but dropped it in December 2011, on what the program’s editor insists were purely journalistic grounds.

During the course of 2012, allegations of the abuses began surfacing in the British press, with reports by freelance journalist Miles Goslett in the lead. A Feb. 8 story by Goslett in The Oldie magazine reported that “Newsnight” had dropped the Savile story shortly before the BBC was scheduled to broadcast “lavish tributes” to Savile, and alleged that Thompson was told about the situation.

After rival television station ITV screened a documentary on the scandal last October, the controversy erupted and the BBC commissioned an independent inquiry, now underway and chaired by former Sky News executive Nick Pollard.

Thompson, who had left the BBC just weeks before the ITV documentary aired, says he played no role in the decision to kill the “Newsnight” story – and that he was not aware of the Savile abuse claims before his Sept. 16 departure.

Internal BBC emails, released to Goslett and published in the Sunday Times on Dec. 2, include several between BBC staffers on Feb. 9, the day the story was published in The Oldie.

The staff members, whose names have been redacted, are evidently discussing a press query from an unnamed journalist to Thompson, reading in part: “… is there any truth in the story in The Oldie that you were aware of the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile …?”

One advises that the query “should be forwarded to Paul [Mylrea, Thompson’s communications director] and press office which you’ve probably already done.”

Minutes later the second staffer replies: “Hi – yes. I’ve sent it to Paul and Mark.”

One of the emails, sent by Mylrea and containing the journalist’s query, is copied to Mark Thompson’s email address.

The Sunday Times story includes a comment by a Thompson spokesman who said journalists’ queries were routinely passed to the press office “without alerting or involving the DG [director-general]. That is what happened in these cases. He was not made aware of the allegations involving Jimmy Savile while he was in office at the BBC.”

Stewart Purvis, a professor of television journalism at London’s City University and former chief executive of British broadcaster ITN, said in a blog post Sunday that the spokesman’s comment missed the point.

“Undoubtedly Mark Thompson’s office routinely passed queries from journalists to the BBC press office,” he wrote. “But what happened on this occasion is that they also took the trouble to make sure he knew of what amounted to an alert about a story he may have missed.”

“The bottom line in this email chain is that we can see one of Mark Thompson’s staff saying ‘I’ve sent it to Mark’ an email about Savile and we can see another actually sending it to him.”

Earlier Purvis, who has been closely examining the affair, compiled a list of at least ten occasions between February and September of this year when, he argues, “Mark Thompson’s office received or should have received information about Savile’s alleged sexual assaults on BBC premises.”

That information has been viewed by the Pollard inquiry, which recently delayed the expected release of its findings from the end of November until around the middle of this month.

On Friday the New York Observer published the text of a purported memo from Thompson to NYT personnel, postponing until 2013 planned meet-the-staff town hall meetings originally scheduled for December 17 and 18 – and linking the delay to the Pollard inquiry.

“One of the reasons I chose those dates was because I expected them to come after the publication of Nick Pollard’s enquiry into the BBC’s handling of the “Newsnight” investigation into Jimmy Savile,” the memo read, according to the Observer.

“I know that there’s been considerable – and quite understandable – interest in this topic inside as well as outside The Times.  I wanted to address questions about it at the Town Halls once the enquiry was out and all the facts were known,” the memo continued. “It now turns out that Nick Pollard will not submit his report at the end of November as originally planned but some weeks later. As a result, I believe it makes sense to move the Town Halls to early in the new year. By then, anyone who is interested can look at the report and I can address their questions on the basis of the facts.”

BBC Trust chairman demurs

Also investigating the Savile/BBC “Newsnight” situation is a House of Commons culture committee in London. Last week it heard from Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC’s independent governing trust (and Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong), who had some testy exchanges over what Thompson knew about the Savile case.

According to a transcript provided by Purvis, Conservative Party committee member Philip Davies asked Patten: “What do you think of Mark Thompson’s explanation of what he knew about Jimmy Savile and Newsnight and all that kind of stuff, what do you think about his explanation of what he knew and when he knew it?”

“I’ll be better able to comment on that after Pollard has replied,” Patten answered.

“As the chairman of the BBC Trust you have no opinion?

“The reason why we set up the Pollard inquiry is so that it could ask those questions,” Patten replied.

After several more minutes of related questioning, Patten told Davies, “You know perfectly well that I’m not going to reply to questions which are being looked at by Nick Pollard’s inquiry, you know that perfectly well, so you can go on asking those questions but you’re going to get the same answer.”

“What do you think about Mark Thompson and his role in all this?” Davies asked still later in the proceedings. “Do you not have an opinion?”

“I’ll have a better informed opinion after Nick Pollard produces his report,” Patten said.

Davies: “So is your opinion only going to be the same as Pollard’s?”

Patten: “No, my opinion will be colored by Mr. Pollard’s, and if it wasn’t going to be, what would be the point of having the Pollard inquiry?”

Davies: “Apart from to save you from having to answer any difficult questions...”