Recent departures from Fox News after various accusations were levelled at high-profile figures reignite a matter of great importance concerning New York Times CEO Mark Thompson.
Thompson, who was director-general and editor-in-chief of the BBC in London before taking up his current post at the Times in 2012, has always maintained he knew nothing about the serial sexual abuse of children and young people committed by the former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile, who died aged 84 in October 2011.
Thompson says he first heard about this abuse after leaving the BBC in September 2012.
However, a lot of evidence calls Thompson’s account into question. In the present climate, with the Times leading the charge against Fox News, it is well worth going over again.
It must be noted from the outset that it isn’t the case that Thompson could have personally stopped the abuse from occurring. This is about Thompson’s personal integrity – a value which the Times holds dear.
After Savile died, the BBC TV show Newsnight launched an expensive investigation into well-founded talk about his unhealthy sexual taste for young girls. Over several weeks reporters located some middle-aged women who gave interviews confirming they had been molested by Savile as minors in the 1970s. Some even said they had been abused on BBC premises.
This shocking news story, shattering Savile’s public image, was ready for broadcast in mid-December 2011 but it then hit a mysterious problem: the team who’d worked on it were told by senior BBC staff that it couldn’t be shown. No proper explanation was offered.
It swiftly came to light that, unbeknown to the investigative journalists, the BBC’s entertainment department had made some tribute programmes praising Savile which were going to be broadcast on BBC TV and radio during Christmas 2011. In the manner of a Soviet state, the BBC decided the tribute shows trumped the awkward news story, which was buried.
In his role as BBC chief, Thompson was challenged about this outrageous editorial decision by a BBC reporter a few days later at a BBC Christmas drinks party.
Afterwards, he rang the BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, to ask her what was going on. She explained in full – Savile had abused children and Newsnight had interviewed some of the victims. However, the tribute shows went ahead anyway, and the toxic news story remained buried.
By January 2012, Thompson was looking for a new job. It wouldn’t be long before he was being interviewed for the Times role. Like anybody scaling the corporate ladder, he therefore had a vested interest in presenting himself as a scandal-free zone.
I had known since December 2011 about the BBC burying its Savile sex scandal story and was determined to find out more. Thanks to sources, I knew Thompson was told before Christmas 2011 about the existence of the Savile story. I also knew that, as editor-in-chief of the BBC, he had had the power either to demand this story be broadcast or to halt the showing of the tribute shows extolling Savile’s virtues. He did neither.
In February 2012 I published a story in a magazine called The Oldie detailing Thompson’s knowledge of this affair. He didn’t react. In April 2012 I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the BBC asking what Thompson knew about Newsnight’s film – the BBC refused to answer. In May 2012 I rang Thompson’s office and told his secretary I wanted to speak to him about Savile’s abuse of children on BBC premises in the 1970s; she said Thompson was away and supposedly never passed my message to him.
Then in August 2012, while working on a separate story about Savile’s abuse for The Sunday Times in London, I put some questions to the BBC asking what Thompson knew of Newsnight’s project. I also asked what Helen Boaden, then head of BBC news, knew of it.
On September 5, 2012 Thompson and Boaden instructed the BBC to send The Sunday Times a letter threatening to sue if it published any story stating that either of them had been involved in suppressing Newsnight’s Savile/sex abuse investigation.
The law firm therefore acknowledged on Thompson’s behalf that such an investigation had taken place – but it kept his fingerprints away from this acknowledgement.
Later that month, Thompson left the BBC to start his new job at the Times.
In October 2012, the BBC launched an inquiry into the Newsnight/Savile affair.
Thompson gave evidence. All of the information detailed above was considered, yet Thompson was cleared unequivocally of having had any knowledge of any allegation against Savile during the eight years that he ran the BBC!
The head of this inquiry, Nick Pollard, later rang me and, in a conversation which I taped, admitted he had excluded key evidence about Thompson from his report.
Pollard therefore alleged that Thompson had probably known about the entire affair before he left the BBC – and before he began at the Times.
What this means is that the New York Times is happy to push for the dismissal of those who have unproven allegations against their name, but is equally content to have as its CEO a man who has never been willing to explain publicly what he knew and when he knew it about the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal.