The New York Times, the BBC and the Savile sex scandal

October 25, 2012

Before he has even had time to measure his office windows for draperies, incoming New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson is in the media crosshairs. No less a figure than Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, implored the paper this week to investigate what role, if any, Thompson had in a burgeoning scandal at the BBC, which he headed for eight years until late this summer.

The BBC scandal is so long-running, so multifaceted and so sordid that it could potentially injure everyone who has worked at the organization over the past 40 years—up to Thompson but including the janitors who clean the BBC’s studio dressing rooms—even if they’re guilty of nothing.

The scandal’s center is Jimmy Savile, the longtime host of a variety of BBC radio and TV programs for kids and young people (including the Top of the Pops), a celebrity fundraiser and friend to politicians and royalty. Late last year, shortly after Savile died, the BBC’s Newsnight program readied an investigative piece about Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls. But just as the findings were about to be broadcast, Newsnight‘s top editor gave it the spike.

A BBC competitor, ITV, picked up where the BBC left off, and at the beginning of this month broadcast its 50-minute expose titled “The Other Side of Jimmy Savile.” Long rumored to have had a thing for young girls, Savile allegedly used his professional perch as a BBC TV host to ingratiate himself with and then sexually abuse young girls (some of them underage) in hospitals, in BBC dressing rooms, in his Rolls Royce and elsewhere. The ITV program got five accusers and three witnesses to give their accounts of sexual abuse, some of which date to 1968.

Although the spiking of the Newsnight segment had been rumored as early as February, the ITV program upended the BBC, making it look craven and self-protecting for not running its Savile investigation. Since the ITV program aired, Scotland Yard and other police forces have opened criminal investigations of the allegation; the BBC has commenced its own internal investigation; members of Parliament are threatening to lay siege to BBC Television Centre; newspapers are ripping the BBC for allegedly abetting Savile; and the editor who killed the BBC investigation, Peter Rippon, has been forced out.

Even the BBC is beating on the BBC for its shortcomings. On Monday its Panorama program broadcast a 60-minute documentary titled “Jimmy Savile: What the BBC Knew,” exploring Savile’s alleged sex crimes and the BBC’s abandonment of the original Newsnight segment about the story. Panorama‘s inconclusive findings suggest that pressure may have come from above—from the BBC’s editorial brass and maybe even management. Not since 2003, when the New York Times investigated its own institutional breakdown in the Jayson Blair scandal, has a major news organization performed such a painful and public act of self-analysis. The Telegraph‘s Neil Midgley got it right in his review, writing that the program’s existence is a “testament to the tenacity of the BBC’s journalists.”

(Confused? Here’s a who’s who of the scandal produced by the BBC. And here’s a time line of events from the Independent)

Which brings us back to Mark Thompson, who left the top job of BBC director general in September. Although no one —not ITV or Panorama or the newspapers—has located a smoking gun, suspicions abound that top news executives at the BBC. and perhaps business-side executives such as Thompson, may have nudged Newsnight‘s editor into dropping the Savile investigation. Based on Panorama‘s findings, another BBC executive, George Entwistle, who replaced Thompson after leading the office that oversees BBC production and scheduling, may have played a part in forging the spike. But that’s circumstantial, based on a 10-second conversation he had with the BBC’s head of news. (For what it’s worth, Entwistle* has apologized to Savile’s alleged victims.)

Circumstantial or not, BBC bosses interested in self-preservation would have had several excellent corporate reasons to kill the Savile program because it would bring extended shame on the BBC. For one thing, the expose arrived at an inconvenient moment: Savile had just died and the BBC had scheduled holiday tributes to the immensely popular broadcaster. Convicting him of statutory rape one night and revering his memory on another would have looked foolish. Also, no matter what the timing of the expose, the Savile revelations are so pervasive—with many BBC employees knowing about or having heard about Savile’s predatory ways over the decades—that the BBC must have turned an institutional blind eye to his alleged crimes. According to a BBC report today, the number of Savile’s alleged victims has reached 330, including one of the entertainer’s great-nieces, who says he put his hands in her underwear when she was 12.

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, extended no cover to executives today when he said he would be “not surprised” if the Savile scandal and its fallout resulted in resignations.

For his part, Thompson vehemently denies having done anything wrong. A few hours after Public Editor Sullivan demanded that the paper investigate Thompson, the Times published a story in which its reporters questioned him. “I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable,” he told the Times. Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. continues to back Thompson, who starts his CEO job on Nov. 12.

It’s reasonable to assume that Thompson was so removed from BBC programming decisions that he bears no culpability for the killing of the Newsnight expose. It may not seem fair, but Thompson won’t get off the hook by maintaining that he’s done nothing untoward or unreasonable in the immediate Savile episode, even if true. Shouldn’t he and his co-executives have known about the Savile allegations before Newsnight started digging into them, some will ask. Shouldn’t he have known what Newsnight was up to and supported their investigation, others will chime in.

With the big investigative machine whirring, and New York Times investigative chief Matt Purdy now “in London covering BBC story,” according to Public Editor Sullivan’s tweet, Thompson is in for the scrutiny of his life. If the Times and other outlets don’t find Thompson’s fingerprints on the Savile spiking, they’ve got his entire eight-year tenure at BBC director general to examine. Given the nature of the allegations and the way scandal investigations billow, the press may ultimately make Thompson pay for what he didn’t do—not for what he did do.

*CORRECTION: This piece originally attributed the comment “tsunami of filth” to George Entwistle. It was Lord Patten who called the scandal a tsunami of filth.  The erroneous quotation has been deleted.


I wouldn’t want to be Thompson right now. I’d rather be See also, the right hemisphere of my personality on Twitter. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: The late Jimmy Savile at the unveiling of a monument, commemorating the fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, Sept. 18, 2005. REUTERS/Paul Hackett


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