More Questions for NYT CEO Mark Thompson Over Handling of BBC Pedophile Scandal

By Patrick Goodenough | October 21, 2013 | 4:52 AM EDT

Mark Thompson, the former BBC director general and new CEO of The New York Times Co., testifies before a House of Commons committee investigating BBC severance payments, in London on Monday Sept. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/PA)

( – Almost a year after Mark Thompson took up the post of CEO at the New York Times Co., allegations that the former director-general of the British Broadcasting Corp. was negligent in his handling of a major pedophile scandal are back in the spotlight.

London’s Mail on Sunday reported that British lawmakers will grill the head of the BBC’s governing Trust on Tuesday about claims that key evidence relating to Thompson was excluded from an independent inquiry held into the affair late last year.

The evidence in question relates to exactly when Thompson first became aware of allegations of child sex abuse by the late British TV personality Jimmy Savile – after he left the BBC in September 2012 to take up his new post in New York, as Thompson maintains; or in a phone conversation about nine months earlier with the BBC’s then-head of news, Helen Boaden.

Had Thompson been aware as early as late 2011, then the question arises why the BBC chose to screen glowing tributes to Savile after he died in October that year.

Police investigating allegations that Savile molested children and young people over a four-decade period, sometimes on BBC premises, said early this year they were dealing with more than 200 recorded criminal offenses.

Thompson, who was BBC director-general – a role that incorporates that of CEO and editor-in-chief – since 2004, told the independent Pollard Review late last year he had “never heard” rumors that Savile had a “dark side of any kind, sexual or otherwise.”

The inquiry, chaired by former Sky News chief Nick Pollard, ultimately accepted Thompson’s assertion, made a year ago as he prepared to take up the NYT post, that “During my time as director-general of the BBC I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”

But Pollard’s report did not include the information about the Boaden-Thompson phone call. (Thompson has said that he and Boaden had “slightly different recollections” about the phone conversation.)

The Mail on Sunday report said the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport select committee would question BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten and current director-general Tony Hall on the matter on Tuesday.

“The BBC chiefs will be asked about their refusal to investigate why key evidence was excluded from the Pollard Review,” it said.

The BBC announced last month that the Pollard Review had cost the BBC and the BBC Trust a total of £2.4 million ($3.88 million).

No cover-up found

Shortly after Savile’s death the BBC’s “Newsnight” program opened an investigation into claims of Savile’s offending, but it was later dropped – for what the staffers concerned said were sound journalistic reasons.

Pollard’s inquiry examined suspicions that the decision to abandon the investigation was improper, but concluded that it did not amount to a cover up – although he did find serious oversight and management failures.

During the Pollard hearings Thompson said he had been unaware of seven stories that had appeared in the British print media about the Savile allegations during the last seven months of his tenure at the BBC.

On Sept. 6, 2012 – 10 days before Thompson left the BBC – lawyers acting on his behalf 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. The lawyers’ letter referred unambiguously to “sexual offenses,” again raising questions about Thompson’s claim not to have known about the nature of the allegations against Savile.

Thompson later said that he was aware of the legal letter’s existence but had not read it and did not recall being briefed about its contents. Pollard accepted that explanation.

Rob Wilson, a Conservative Party member of parliament, told later he was “very puzzled as to why the Pollard Review has chosen to believe the account of Mark Thompson, who has publicly contradicted himself about what he knew about the Savile allegations and admits to having an imprecise recollection of events, but has seemingly discounted entirely the evidence of Helen Boaden, who was party to the key [phone] conversation with Thompson and seems to have a much clearer recollection of events than he does.”

More questions

The Savile affair is not the only troubling bit of BBC history that has dogged Thompson over the past year.

Last month he was called to London to give evidence to a parliamentary committee about severance packages given out to senior BBC executives which a national audit found were more generous than the individuals were entitled to. One of the packages, to Thompson’s former deputy, amounted to almost one million pounds ($1.6m).

Thompson defended the payments, and said he had kept the BBC Trust fully informed. Patten, the Trust chairman, suggested the Trust had been misled about the scale of severance payments.

In a separate matter, Thompson has been asked to appear before another Commons committee, dealing with public accounts to answer questions about a failed program during his watch to digitize the BBC’s archives.

Thompson had told the committee in early 2002 that the project known as the Digital Media Initiative (DMI) was “on track,” but it was scrapped earlier this year after having cost almost 100 million pounds ($161m).

The BBC Trust has asked the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to carry out an independent review into the DMI failure, and Thompson will be asked to testify before the committee, probably next year.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow