BBC scandal creates waves for incoming New York Times CEO

Wed Oct 17, 2012 12:59am EDT

Oct 17 (Reuters) - The erupting scandal at Britain's public broadcaster, the BBC, over allegations of sexual abuse involving late TV host Jimmy Savile is leading to awkward questions for the New York Times Co's incoming chief executive, Mark Thompson.

The BBC is facing police and parliamentary inquires into whether Savile, the eccentric host of the BBC's legendary "Top of the Pops" music show who died last year at the age of 84, sexually abused a group of women and girls -- some as young as 13 -- over six decades. The probes follow a bombshell report aired earlier this month by rival broadcaster ITV about the allegations.

Former BBC executives admitted there had been rumours about Savile, but dismissed suggestions they had turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of celebrities.

On Sunday, the New York Times former executive editor Bill Keller wrote a column drawing a parallel between Savile and that of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was recently sentenced to what amounts to life imprisonment for molesting children. "Whether the BBC fell short in its reporting and missed the story or had the story and lacked the nerve, it is a significant embarrassment, compounded by the hard question of why the widespread rumors of Savile's behavior were ignored for so long," Keller wrote.

Thompson spent most of his career at the BBC, rising from trainee in 1979 to roles on popular shows such as "Newsnight" and the "Nine O'Clock News" before being named Director-General, which is considered the most powerful position in the U.K. television industry.

The BBC's flagship "Newsnight" show was working on its own investigation into the Savile allegations last year that was canceled, leading to accusations of a cover up.

The BBC denied it had shelved the show in order to keep the allegations under wraps. It is currently investigating the matter and cooperating with police.

Newsnight's editor, Peter Rippon, said they shelved the program on Savile after public prosecutors dropped their case for lack of evidence.

An article in the New York Times on Saturday pointed out that Thompson was at the top job at the BBC when the Newsnight show was canceled.

Thompson, who steps into the CEO role at the New York Times next month, said in a statement: "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.

"I have no reason to doubt the public statement by the program's editor, Peter Rippon, that the decision not to pursue the investigation was entirely his, and that it was made solely for journalistic reasons.

"During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile."

No evidence has emerged to show that Thompson knew about the program decision or about Savile's alleged behavior.

The BBC is a sprawling organization with 22,000 employees working at its eight national TV channels, 50 radio stations and an extensive website. During the years when their careers overlapped, Thompson was in the news and current affairs area of the company rather than in its entertainment arm where Savile worked until retiring in 1994.

Mark Damazer, the former controller of Radio 4 and Radio 7 at the BBC and currently the head of St. Peter's College at the University of Oxford, does not believe that Thompson had anything to do with the editorial process of the Newsnight program.

"The chances that Mark interfered in the decisions of Newsnight as to whether or not they were going to broadcast the story are precisely zero," said Mark Damazer, a long-time colleague of Thompson's who left the BBC in 2010.

A representative for the New York Times would not comment on the BBC investigations, saying only that Thompson is "our incoming CEO and he starts in November."

Still, the "optics" of the situation are not ideal for Thompson or the New York Times, said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and media think tank.

"It really depends what else comes out and how closely he can be tied to the scandal at the BBC," said McBride. "If it's just guilt by association most of the time organizations are fine with that."

The danger for the New York Times Co would be if it was the kind of scandal that led to layer upon layer of revelations, she said.

Thompson was named CEO of the New York Times Co in August, capping an eight-month search for an executive to lead the company after Janet Robinson was abruptly ousted as chief executive last year.

He was tapped by the Times Co in part because of his extensive experience in video and digital, and because of his skills in corporate diplomacy.

While at the BBC, Thompson helped develop the digital iPlayer, which enables viewers to catch up on missed programs online for free. It was considered a huge hit among those viewing the Olympics.

He has been lauded for guiding the public broadcaster through morale problems, assaults from Rupert Murdoch's media empire and threats to its funding by the British government.

Indeed, News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose own company's U.K. phone-hacking scandal has been covered extensively by both the BBC and the New York Times, seized on the opportunity to jab at his rivals on Twitter.

"Look to new CEO to shake up NYT unless recalled to BBC to explain latest scandal," tweeted Murdoch.

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