The New York Times (NYT) stood by its incoming chief on 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 the US’.
However, as new CEO Mark Thompson was getting support from his new bosses, the Times ombudsman questioned his fitness for the job.
As Thompson prepares to take over as president of the 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 on 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,” he 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 chief executive 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.
In a letter to Conservative MP Rob 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.
The controversy drew the attention of the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who asked readers in a column on 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 Times chief, noting: “His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly.”