Incoming NYT CEO Now Recalls Sex-Abuse Allegations Against BBC’s Jimmy Savile

By Penny Starr and Michael W. Chapman | October 26, 2012 | 5:09 PM EDT

Former BBC Director General Mark thompson, now CEO of The New York Times Company. (AP)

( – Incoming New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, now says it became clear to him in late 2011 that a BBC Newsnight program was investigating sexual abuse allegations against the late BBC host Jimmy Savile, a revelation that apparently conflicts with Thompson’s statement on Oct. 13 that he “never heard any allegations” about Savile.

Jimmy Savile, who died in October 2011 at age 84, had worked at the BBC as the host of three highly popular programs from 1964 to 1994; he had been knighted by the queen and the pope, raised millions for charities, and was a British cultural icon. Currently, Scotland Yard is investigating more than 300 allegations of sexual abuse against Savile, most of them involving girls, some as young as 12 when the abuse occurred.

Mark Thompson worked at the BBC from 1979 to 2002 in various editorial and managerial positions and served as director general (editor-in-chief) of the corporation from 2004 through mid-August 2012. His time at the BBC overlapped with that of Savile for 15 years (1979-1994), although Thompson did not work with the accused pedophile and does not recall if he ever met Savile.

The Savile scandal broke on Oct. 3, 2012, when the rival British network ITV broadcast an hour-long report on the allegations, which stretched back 40 years, raising questions about who knew what and when at the BBC.  This report came after the BBC itself had spiked a Savile investigation, by its Newsnight program, in early December 2011, when Mark Thompson was director general.

Former BBC Presenter Jimmy Savile (1926-2011).

New York Times columnist Bill Keller, the paper’s former executive editor, wrote last week, “Gossip about Savile’s fondling of young teenagers was rife, but never rose to a level deemed newsworthy during his life.”  Keller also quoted Esther Rantzen, a long-time BBC host who knew Savile, as saying, “Everyone knew. That is, everyone in the television and pop music industries knew.”

After the scandal broke, the New York Times on Oct. 13 quoted Mark Thompson as saying, “During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”

Thompson further said, “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.”

However, on Oct. 22, British Minister of Parliament Rob Wilson, who serves on a House of Commons committee investigating the BBC-Savile scandal, wrote to Thompson – letter obtained by -- asking him to “clarify a number of issues in relation to the role of the BBC’s management in relation to the decision to pull the Newsnight investigation, the subsequent decision to suppress any further work on the investigation into the Savile allegations, and the apparent failure by the BBC to make any attempt to set the record straight on Savile or to hand over the relevant evidence it had amassed to the police.”  (Letter: RoWilson letter to Mark Thompson 22-10-12.pdf )


Sir Jimmy Savile and England's Prince Charles. (BBC)

MP Wilson then cited Thompson’s denial of ever hearing any allegations or complaints about Savile and asked him to “confirm or deny the accuracy” of a Sunday Times report of Oct. 7 that “appears to contradict your statement: ‘When people in BBC News heard that Newsnight’s report had been dropped, many were furious, which is how Mark Thompson, in his final year as director-general came to hear of it. One BBC journalist tackled Thompson, who said he had never heard of the Savile investigation. Did he then do nothing to find what was going on?


MP Wilson continued, “I am surprised to learn that you had never heard any allegations against Savile, given that a relatively junior BBC publicist stated in an email in late 2011, since leaked to The Times, that such rumours about Savile had been ‘circulating in the media for many years.’ … What steps did you take during your remaining nine months as Director General to ensure that the BBC did not promote a misleading impression of Savile to its audiences? I would also be grateful if you would clarify who, during your tenure, was or should have been responsible for the decision to persist with the tribute programmes to Savile [in December 2011].”

British MP Rob Wilson.

On Oct. 23, Mark Thompson, who is scheduled to start at the New York Times next month, wrote back to MP Wilson. Thompson now said he was never “formally notified” about the Newsnight investigation of Savile. (Letter: Rob Wilson Letter from Mark Thompson 23-10-12.pdf )

“What did happen is that, at a drinks reception late last year, a journalist mentioned to me the existence of the investigation and said words to the effect of ‘you must be worried about the Newsnight investigation?’ This was the first I had heard of the investigation. I believe that this is the incident to which the Sunday Times is referring.”

Thompson further said, “I did not respond at the time, nor did the journalist set out what allegations Newsnight were investigating or had been investigating. Shortly thereafter I mentioned this conversation to the senior management of BBC News and asked them whether there was a problem with the investigation. They told me there had been an investigation but that the programme had decided not to proceed on journalistic grounds.”

“You quote me as saying,” Thompson wrote, “’During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.’ Both of these statements are true to the very best of my knowledge – indeed, other than the brief conversations I have set out in the preceding paragraph, his name scarcely came up during my years as DG."

"I had a long career in the BBC [1979-2002, 2004-2012]," wrote Thompson, "but never worked with Jimmy Savile or, to the best of my knowledge, worked on any programme or in any department where he worked. Indeed I don’t believe I ever met him. 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.”

BBC Television Centre, London, England. (AP)

Two days later, Oct. 24, The Times (London) reported that it was BBC foreign correspondent Caroline Hawley who had mentioned the Newsnight investigation to Thompson around Christmas 2011 and that BBC head of news Helen Boaden subsequently told him that the Savile investigation had been dropped for editorial reasons.

The Times then quoted Thompson as telling them, “By this stage [Christmas 2011] I think it is clear to me that it’s allegations which relate to sexual abuse of some kind.”

“So, at this point, I think I have formed the impression and I’m aware that they have been looking at allegations of abuse of some kind related to Jimmy Savile,” Thompson told The Times. “But crucially I’m told that the normal editorial process has taken place and Newsnight has decided not to proceed with the investigation.” sent inquiries to Thompson’s spokesman, Ed Williams, asking him to explain the apparent contradiction between his Oct. 13 statement – "I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile” – and his comments in the Oct. 23 letter to MP Wilson and his Oct. 24 comments to The Times, where he reveals that he was asked about the Newsnight investigation in December 2011 and that he realized around that time that the allegations against Savile concerned “sexual abuse of some kind.”

Ed Williams did not respond before this story was posted.

MP Wilson sent a second letter to Thompson on Oct. 23. First, Wilson thanked him, noting that three letters sent to current BBC Director General George Entwistle on Oct. 9, 12 and 19 had not been answered.

He also thanked Thompson  for taking the opportunity “to correct and clarify the statement you gave via Reuters about your knowledge of the allegations against Jimmy Savile and the Newsnight investigation.”

Former BBC presenter Esthen Rantzen. (AP)

MP Wilson then asked Thompson to provide answers about who he spoke with “in the senior management of BBC news” about the Newsnight investigation. With whom did he speak, on what dates , and when “did they inform you that Newsnight had decided not to proceed with the investigation ‘on journalistic grounds,’” among other related questions.

In his closing remarks, MP Wilson asked Thompson, “Given that Savile was a high-profile BBC employee for several decades, to the extent that the Corporation broadcast tribute programmes celebrating Savile’s work for it, why did you not take any steps to establish whether or not the investigation was in any way related to the BBC or would have any bearing on the Corporation’s reputation?”

As this story was posted, it was not known whether Thompson had answered MP Wilson’s second letter. (Letter: Wilson letter to Mark Thompson 23-10-12.pdf )

The NYT’s Bill Keller quoted Esther Rantzen as saying that “everyone knew” about Savile’s sexual perversion.  He further quoted her as relating, “A journalist friend told me in the 1970s about a little girl with a heart defect. Jimmy had helped her to have the defect surgically corrected. A newspaper heard about his generosity and contacted the girl’s family to run the story, but the family refused to talk to them because they were sickened by what they knew he had done to her to make her ‘earn’ the operation.”