LONDON (Reuters) - Incoming New York Times chief Mark Thompson told Reuters on Wednesday that his U.S. employer had given him full support since a sexual abuse scandal erupted at Britain’s BBC where he had been in charge until last month.
His handling of the matter at the British Broadcasting Corporation should not prevent him from starting his new job in November as planned, he said in a telephone interview from New York.
“All of my colleagues here in the management team of the New York Times have been very supportive on this and more broadly as I prepare to take on the job,” he said. “I’ve been very well supported as the incoming CEO of this company.”
The BBC has been rocked by accusations of sexual abuse involving a former TV host, the late Jimmy Savile, and claims it had covered up his alleged crimes and dropped its own news expose while Thompson was in charge.
The furor prompted Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, to question whether Thompson was now fit to take up the role of president and chief executive of the respected American company.
A New York Times spokesman said on Wednesday that Thompson would join the company as president and chief executive the week of November 12.
“We believe his experience and accomplishments make him the ideal person to take the helm of the Times Company as we focus on growing our businesses through digital and global expansion,” spokesman Robert Christie said in an emailed statement.
Thompson said he did not know about the nature of the investigation by the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program into Savile, one of the broadcaster’s best known stars for decades, and had had no involvement in the decision to axe the report.
He said he had had a “chance meeting” with a journalist who mentioned the Newsnight investigation into Savile, but said he had not been told any of the details or the scale of the problem.
“I do not believe there is anything that I’ve done in relation to this matter which should in any way impinge on my abilities to fully discharge the responsibilities I’ll have at the New York Times,” he said.
Thompson said he had approached his new employers to explain his role at the BBC and why he had not dealt with such an issue, despite being the director general and editor in chief of the world-renowned organization.
Under the structure of the corporation, such editorial matters would be dealt with by the BBC News division and would not normally reach the corporate level, he explained.
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 Savile and Thompson’s 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.
“Not knowing what they (Newsnight) had, it’s very hard to judge whether it should have been referred (to me) or not,” he said.
Thompson said he had not yet met with the board of the New York Times but would be happy to do so if they had further questions. A spokesman for Thompson said the stance taken by Sullivan was purely editorial and added that he supported completely the paper’s need to cover the story.
“I’ve had many many conversations with my new employers in recent weeks and the moment this became an issue I absolutely wanted to talk to them, so they would understand my perspective on what has happened,” Thompson said.
“The BBC is a very, very big organization. I don’t know how many investigations it does, it’s hundreds or possibly thousands every year. I was director general of the BBC and I cannot recall a single Newsnight item ever being referred to me, in 8 years.”
The scandal, which erupted this month when a rival broadcaster ITV showed its own investigation, has thrown the corporation into disarray and sparked questions over the handling of the crisis by Thompson and his successor George Entwistle.
The BBC is now facing parliamentary and police investigations into whether Savile, an eccentric host of the BBC’s legendary “Top of the Pops” music show who died last year at the age of 84, abused women and girls over six decades.
“The Jimmy Savile affair is a horrible and distressing business,” Thompson said. “The cruelty and the suffering of the victims, we can only imagine.”
In reference to his brief conversation with a journalist over the Newsnight program, he added: ”I think I may have understood that we were talking about allegations of a sexual nature, although I‘m not even sure about that.
”But I certainly wasn’t aware that it was going to include very grave allegations about pedophilia or rape or that it would involve actions which had taken place on BBC premises.
“Had that been made clear to me at that point I would certainly of wanted to know more and in particular about the decision making of whether to proceed with the program.”
Editing by Maria Golovnina