Published November 20, 2014
The New York Times stood by its incoming chief Wednesday, even as questions about a BBC child sex abuse scandal followed him from one of Britain's most respected news organizations to one of America's.
But as new CEO Mark Thompson was getting support from his new bosses, the Times ombudsman questioned his fitness for the job.
And in Britain, a lawmaker said he had more questions for Thompson.
As Thompson prepares to take over as president of The New York Times next month, he has been put on the defensive about his final days as head of the BBC and the broadcaster's decision to kill what would have been a bombshell investigative story alleging the late Jimmy Savile, one of its biggest stars, had sexually abused up to 200 children.
In a letter to a lawmaker and an interview with the Times, Thompson said he never knew of the Savile story before it was spiked and had never met the network's popular star.
New York Times Co. spokesman Bob Christie said Wednesday that the BBC scandal had "obviously been a topic that we've discussed" internally, but the Times was satisfied with Thompson's answers.
"Mark has done an excellent job of explaining the matter," Christie said. Thompson said he played no role in spiking the BBC investigation and "we're satisfied with that."
Thompson will start as the organization's CEO on Nov. 12, Christie said.
The BBC scandal has horrified Britain with revelations that Savile, a popular children's television presenter, cajoled and coerced vulnerable teens into having sex with him in his car, in his camper van, and even in dingy dressing rooms on BBC premises. He is also accused of sexually assaulting disabled children at hospitals that he helped by raising charity funds.
Police say there could be more than 200 victims, leading one child protection charity to say that Savile could rank among Britain's most prolific child sex predators.
The BBC said Tuesday it was looking into claims of sexual abuse and harassment against nine other current and former employees and contributors.
As increasing numbers of BBC executives come under the microscope over what they knew about Savile — and why the posthumous expose about his sexual crimes was shelved — Thompson, 55, the BBC director-general from 2004 until last month, is being quizzed about his role as well.
In a letter to Wilson, Thompson said he never met Savile or worked on any of the entertainer's programs, and had never heard any rumored stories about Savile's interest in young girls.
"If I had, I would have raised them with senior colleagues and contacted the police," he said.
Thompson said he heard in late December from a BBC journalist at a company cocktail party that the broadcaster's "Newsnight" program had been investigating Savile, but said the journalist never "set out what allegations 'Newsnight' were investigating or had been investigating."
Thompson said he followed the matter up with other executives who told him the "Newsnight" investigation was canceled for journalistic reasons, suggesting they believed there wasn't enough evidence.
"I had no reason to believe that his conduct was a pressing concern," Thompson told the Times. "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."
The BBC denies that a cover-up was the reason it canceled the investigative piece only weeks before the broadcaster aired a glowing tribute show to Savile, a prodigious charity fundraiser who was widely eulogized following his death last year at 84.
But "Newsnight" editor Peter Rippon recently stepped down as the BBC's internal investigation got under way. After weeks of standing by Rippon, the BBC has said his explanation about why the Savile story was not broadcast was incomplete and inaccurate.
Wilson told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he has written to Thompson again seeking more answers.
"There are questions about how much the journalist told him about the 'Newsnight' investigation that need to be cleared up as quickly as possible," Wilson said, adding that Thompson said he is willing to answer questions to the BBC and the U.K. parliamentary committee looking into the matter.
Wilson said Thompson's fitness to serve as The New York Times chief depends on the outcome of the various inquiries.
But The New York Times has already waited months for a new permanent chief executive following the resignation of Janet Robinson last December. One analyst said the paper could ill afford to wait any longer.
"My feeling is if he (Thompson) has no problem that could surface in the near future, there would be no need for him to delay," said Edward Atorino, an analyst with The Benchmark Company. "If there is an issue, he should withdraw."
The controversy drew the attention of The New York Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who asked readers in a column Tuesday to evaluate the incoming chief's answers.
"How likely is it that he knew nothing?" she asked. "A director general of a giant media company is something like a newspaper's publisher. Would a publisher be very likely to know if an investigation of one of its own people on sexual abuse charges had been killed?"
In a carefully worded paragraph that followed, she raised the issue of Thompson's fitness to serve as The New York Times chief.
"His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly," she wrote. "It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."
Sullivan said that while finding an answer was "not as easy as it sounds ... all these questions ought to be asked."
Sullivan's office said Wednesday she would not be elaborating on her post.