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.