BBC Scandal: Transcripts Show Mark Thompson, Now NYT CEO, Said He ‘Never Heard’ Rumors About Molester

By Patrick Goodenough | February 25, 2013 | 4:45 AM EST

Three months after he took over as CEO of the New York Times Co., former BBC director-general Mark Thompson continues to be dogged by the controversy over the BBC’s handling of child sex abuse allegations. (AP Photo)

( – Newly released transcripts from an inquiry into the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile child sex scandal reveal more about the role played by the public service broadcaster’s then director-general, New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson.

The transcripts, published Friday, show that Thompson told the inquiry late last year that he had “never heard” rumors that Savile had a “dark side of any kind, sexual or otherwise.” Savile, a celebrity entertainer who died in 2011 at age 84, is alleged to have sexually abused hundreds of children over his long BBC career.

The same inquiry, chaired by former Sky News chief Nick Pollard, was told by one of the BBC’s most prominent journalists, Jeremy Paxman, that Savile’s liking for “young girls” was “common gossip” at the BBC. Other interviewees confirmed this, with one recalling have heard rumors even before she joined the BBC well over a decade earlier.

The Pollard transcripts also criticize the way the BBC was run while Thompson was at the helm, with claims he oversaw a Beijing-style, top-heavy management structure.

“[T]hey had more senior leaders than China,” BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten told Pollard. “The management team, the senior management team, that the previous director-general [Thompson] had was 27 – 25 or 27. They never met.” (Patten has first-hand experience of China’s leadership structure; he was Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong before it reverted to mainland control in 1997.)

Patten noted that one of the first things Thompson’s immediate successor did on taking up the post was reducing the size of the top management team to 12 or fewer.

The 3,000 pages of documents released by the BBC Trust on Friday included partly-redacted transcripts of evidence heard by the Pollard inquiry – including that given by Thompson, who flew back to London last November to testify – as well as emails and other correspondence.

Thompson was BBC director-general (a role that incorporates that of chief executive and editor-in-chief) from 2004 until last September, when he left to take up the post in New York.

His departure from London came as a scandal was erupting over a December 2011 decision by the BBC’s Newsnight program to abandon an investigation into the child sex-abuse claims surrounding Savile. After leaving Britain Thompson consistently maintained that he had “never heard any allegations,” while at the BBC, relating to the abuses (see below for a list of Thompson’s statements.)

The BBC commissioned the Pollard inquiry to probe suspicions that Newsnight had killed the Savile story for “improper” reasons, and when its final report was released on December 19, it found no evidence to support this.

The inquiry also spared Thompson direct criticism, accepting his word that although he had been told Newsnight was working on a story on Savile, he was not aware of the substance, and “remained ignorant of the fact that the investigation was into allegations of sexual abuse.”

But three months into his tenure at the NYT, Thompson continues to be dogged by the controversy.

On Sunday the London Sunday Times reported on claims that Helen Boaden, the outgoing director of BBC News, alleges that she told Thompson about the Savile abuse allegations in a December 2011 conversation. That claim categorically challenges Thompson’s insistence that he knew nothing until after he left the BBC last September.

Thompson has undertaken to hold “town hall” meetings with NYT staffers where, among other things, he could answer any questions about the Savile affair. Postponed in December due to a delay in the final Pollard report, Thompson then said they would take place “early in the new year.”

Queries sent to the NYT Co. on Sunday brought no response by press time.

British police say Savile, on a scale of abuse “unprecedented in the U.K.,” committed more than 200 sex crimes between 1955 and 2009, including 34 rapes, and that most of the victims were children and teenagers.

Timeline of Thompson’s statements denying knowledge of Savile pedophile allegations

--Sept. 16, 2012: Thompson leaves the BBC, ahead of taking up the post of president and CEO of the New York Times Co.

--Oct. 13: After a rival TV network in early October airs a documentary on the Savile claims, Thompson issues a statement saying, “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. During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”

(Several days later it emerges that Thompson had in fact been made aware of the Newsnight investigation, during a brief conversation with a reporter at a company Christmas drinks party in December 2011. British lawmaker Rob Wilson then wrote to Thompson, seeking answers.)

--Oct. 23: Thompson in a letter of reply to Wilson writes: “I was never formally notified about the ‘Newsnight’ investigation and was not briefed about the allegations they were examining and to what extent, if at all, those allegations related to Savile’s work at the BBC.”

He confirms the brief cocktail party conversation had taken place, but says the reporter had not mentioned what allegations were being investigated against Savile.

Thompson tells Wilson further that, throughout his BBC career, he had never heard allegations about Savile’s alleged abusive behavior.

“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 joined the corporation in 1979 as a production trainee and held management positions from 1996 onward. Savile’s BBC career ran from 1964 to 1994, with subsequent guest appearances as late as 2006.)

“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.”

--Oct. 23: The NYT publishes a report on an interview in which Thompson says that during the cocktail party conversation he had not asked for specifics of the Newsnight investigation, but that he had brought up the matter with BBC News staff the following day.

He says that neither at the Christmas party nor the next day was he told the substance of the allegations against Savile, nor had he asked.

“Had I known about the nature of the allegations and the credible allegations that these horrific crimes had taken place during his time at the BBC and in the building at the BBC, I of course would have considered them very grave and would have acted very differently.”

--Oct. 23: In a further report, the NYT quotes Thompson as saying, “I knew about its [the Newsnight investigation’s] existence. But I was told however the program decided to stop it … I was not given any detail of what the program had been investigating.”

--Nov. 23: Thompson flies to London to give evidence to the Pollard inquiry. Pollard would later report that Thompson told him that “he did not learn any specifics of the [Newsnight] investigation, and remained ignorant of the fact the investigation was into allegations of sexual abuse.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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