The late and under fire chief executive of the New York Times previously faced questions over what he knew about the Jimmy Savile pedophile scandal when he was director general of the BBC, amid apparent inconsistencies in his public statements.
Mark Thompson started his new job on 12 November, but the NYT’s public editor, or ombudsman, questioned his suitability for the role in a blogpost on Tuesday. In her article, Margaret Sullivan called for the paper to cover Thompson’s knowledge of the scandal and allegations of a cover-up “more aggressively”.
Adding to his woes with his new employer, Thompson is now attempting to reconcile two apparently contradictory statements over what he knew about a TV report into Savile by the BBC’s Newsnight programme. The report was pulled in December 2011, and the allegations of abuse were eventually aired earlier this month on rival network ITV.
Amid questions over whether he will be able to start his new job as planned on 12 November, Thompson gave an interview to the New York Times on Wednesday in which he insisted he had not done anything that would “impede my ability” to join the organization.
Thompson, whose role as director general also carried the designation “editor in chief”, made his first statement about the scandal to the New York Times on 13 October .
He said: “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 programme’s editor, Peter Rippon, that the decision not to pursue the investigation was entirely his, and that it was made solely for journalistic reasons.”
He added: “During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”
But in response to inquiries by the Times newspaper in London, which is not connected to the New York Times, Thompson admitted through his spokesman that he was aware that Newsnight was investigating Savile. The spokesman told the London-based Times: “Mark attended a party late last year where a journalist mentioned the fact that Newsnight had been investigating Savile. The journalist said words to the effect that ‘You must be worried about the Newsnight investigation’.
This was the first that Mark had heard about the investigation. The journalist did not go into what Newsnight was investigating. Mark did not respond at the party but did mention the conversation to senior colleagues in BBC News and asked if there was a problem with the investigation.
He was told that Newsnight had begun an investigation into Savile but had decided to drop it for journalistic reasons. Mark assumed that this meant that the decision not to proceed had been taken by Peter Rippon.
“He was not told anything about the allegations Newsnight had been looking at. The first time he became aware of the allegations that Savile had committed serious crimes and that some had taken place in the course of his employment at the BBC was when he heard the ‘pre-publicity’ for the ITV investigation. This was after he had stepped down as director general.”
Thompson’s spokesman told the Guardian there was “no contradiction” between the two positions.
“Mark told the New York Times he was not briefed on the Newsnight investigation. He wasn’t. As he made clear yesterday he was only made aware of the allegations relating to Jimmy Savile when ITV published pre-broadcast publicity regarding their documentary in recent weeks,” the spokesman said.
Thompson’s spokesman insisted to the Guardian that he stood by both statements and said there was no inconsistency between them. But Thompson’s position appears to rest on the difference between being “made aware” and being “notified or briefed”. The BBC journalist who spoke to Thompson at the party, Caroline Hawley, told the Times of London on Wednesday that while she could not remember exactly what she said, she was likely to have given the “broad context” of the allegations.
In his interview with the New York Times on Tuesday, Thompson conceded he had been told of the investigation but insisted that he did not know of the specifics and had not put any pressure on the Newsnight team. “I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable.”
Rob Wilson, a Conservative MP, told the London Times: “Mark Thompson has already had to clarify his version of events once. He originally implied that he knew nothing about the Newsnight investigation, before admitting that a BBC journalist had told him he had reasons to worry about it. Now there are questions about whether he was told more about the subject of the Newsnight investigation than he has previously admitted.”
The inquiry into which BBC executives knew what and when is in danger of overshadowing the initial story into the abuse conducted by Savile over his 40-year career as a radio DJ and TV host. George Entwistle, Thompson’s successor as director general, gave a faltering performance before a committee of MPs on Tuesday, where he was accused of a “lack of curiosity” over the Newsnight investigation.
Thompson has said that he will return to London to face MPs if he is called to appear. His position at the New York Times was put under significant strain this week when Sullivan, the public editor, asked whether he was the “right person for the job,” given the importance attached to integrity at the paper. She suggested that the NYT should cover the story more aggressively. In her blogpost, she asked: “How likely is it that he knew nothing?”
Questioning Thompson’s suitability, Sullivan wrote: “How likely is it that the Times Company will continue with its plan to bring Mr Thompson on as chief executive? (It’s worth noting that as public editor, I have no inside knowledge on such corporate matters.) His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect the Times and its journalism – profoundly. It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.”
In his New York Times interview, Thompson said: “It is my belief that there isn’t anything in my participation or my role in this story that would impede my ability to join and work with my colleagues at The New York Times.”
A spokesman for the New York Times Company said he would join as planned on 12 November. “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,” the spokeman told the NYT.
The vice-president of corporate communications at the New York Times, Eileen Murphy, said it would not comment on the public editor’s questioning of Thompson’s suitability. Murphy said: “The public editor is an independent voice in the newsroom and she is doing her job. We do not make a habit of commenting on her columns.”