Former BBC Director General Mark Thompson says in an interview published in the New York Times yesterday that he was not aware of an investigative report prepared for the BBC programme “Newsnight” into Jimmy Savile’s behaviour - until after the investigation was cancelled.
Thompson gave the interview to the Times in a spare office at the Times building in New York, where he is expected to officially begin working next month as chief executive.
The article appeared the day after Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times public editor, published a powerful blog saying it was "worth considering now if he (Thompson) is the right person for the job". She asks , "How likely is it that he knew nothing?"
In his interview , Thompson said that he was made aware that “Newsnight” had been investigating Jimmy Savile only during a conversation with a reporter at a company party last December.
Thompson said he did not ask the reporter about the specifics of the investigation but that he did follow up the next day with two officials from BBC News.
“I talked to senior management in BBC News and reported the conversation I had at the party and asked was there a problem,” he told the NYT.
He was told the organisation did not continue to publish the story “for journalistic reasons.”
Thompson, BBC director general from 2004 to September 2012, added, “There is nothing to suggest that I acted inappropriately in the handling of this matter. I did not impede or stop the ‘Newsnight’ investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable.”
Starting in September, reports have been surfacing that Savile, a beloved television personality, and longtime BBC employee, had victimised more than 200 boys and girls before his death last year.
The accusations have also raised questions about whether the BBC was aware of his suspected pattern of criminal behaviour , said the NYT, and whether the “Newsnight” investigation was shut down to avoid embarrassment for the corporation.
Thompson said that in his conversation with the reporter and in his follow-up with BBC News officials, he was never told about the nature of the allegations, nor did he ask.
“I had no reason to believe that his conduct was a pressing concern,” he said. “Had I known about the nature of the allegations and the credible allegations that these horrific crimes had taken place during his time at the BBC and in the building at the BBC, I of course would have considered them very grave and would have acted very differently.”
The Times said questions about Thompson’s "degree of involvement" have come as he is preparing to take on his new role at The Times.
He does not have a special contract and he or the company may end the agreement at any time, said the report. A New York Times spokesman said that while the newspaper’s board had been notified of the BBC matter, he was confident that Thompson will be the company’s chief executive.
“Mark will join The New York Times Company as president and CEO the week of Nov. 12,” said the spokesman in a statement.
“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.”
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.”
The Times report added that Douglas Arthur, an equity analyst at Evercore Partners, an investment bank that follows The Times was more cautious.
“It might make sense to delay his start date until there is more clarity on how this is going to play out in Parliament and in the U.K.,” he said. “Even if everything he has said to date is accurate, there is still a great deal of confusion around the actual facts of the case.”
The Times report said that On Oct. 13, Thompson released a statement saying , “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.”
In a letter sent to MP Rob Wilson this week he said he had heard about the investigation at the party from a reporter, Caroline Hawley.
“I cannot recall the exact words I used, but I remember asking why it had been dropped,” Ms. Hawley said in a statement according to the NYT. “I came away with the impression that he did not know about the investigation. ”