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updated: 10/24/2012 10:50 AM

BBC scandal raises questions for incoming NYT boss

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  • Former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson. The child abuse scandal centered on the late BBC star Jimmy Savile has raised some uncomfortable for the corporation's former boss, now only weeks away from taking his position as the chief executive of The New York Times.

    Former BBC Director-General Mark Thompson. The child abuse scandal centered on the late BBC star Jimmy Savile has raised some uncomfortable for the corporation's former boss, now only weeks away from taking his position as the chief executive of The New York Times.
    Associated Press File Photo

Associated Press

LONDON -- The child abuse scandal that has enveloped one of Britain's most respected news organizations is now hitting one of America's, as the incoming president of The New York Times is on the defensive about his final days as head of the BBC.

Mark Thompson was in charge of the BBC in late 2011 when the broadcaster shelved what would have been a bombshell investigation alleging that the late Jimmy Savile, one of its biggest stars, was a serial sex offender.

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.

Police say there could be more than 200 victims, leading one child protection charity to state that Savile could rank among Britain's most prolific child sex predators.

In a sign of how the scandal may spread, the BBC said Tuesday it was looking into claims of sexual abuse and harassment against nine other current and former employees and contributors.

As increasing numbers of BBC executives come under the microscope over what they knew about Savile -- and why the posthumous expose about his sexual crimes was blocked -- Thompson is being quizzed about his role as well.

In a letter to Conservative lawmaker Rob Wilson, Thompson laid out his defense, saying he never worked with Savile, never worked on any of the entertainer's programs and indeed never met the man. Referring to the increasing number of BBC employees who have come forward to say that Savile's interest in young girls was widely rumored, Thompson said he had never been aware of the whispers.

"If I had, I would have raised them with senior colleagues and contacted the police," said Thompson, 55.

The controversy was compounded when it emerged that an investigation into Savile by the BBC's "Newsnight" program was shelved last year only weeks before the BBC aired a glowing holiday tribute show to Savile.

Now journalists and lawmakers are asking whether BBC bosses canned the show to protect their star, a prodigious charity fundraiser who was widely eulogized following his death last year at age 84.

The corporation denies a cover-up, although "Newsnight" editor Peter Rippon recently stepped down as the BBC's internal investigation got under way. After weeks of standing by Rippon, the BBC has said his explanation about why the Savile show was not broadcast was incomplete and inaccurate.

With Thompson about to move from one of the most important jobs in the British media to one of most important jobs in American journalism, exactly what he knew -- and when he knew it -- could be critical to his future career.

In a statement last week, Thompson said he had "never heard any allegations or received any complaints" about Savile during his time as BBC director-general, from 2004 to 2012.

But an Oct. 7 story by London's Sunday Times appeared to contradict him, reporting that a BBC journalist had tipped Thompson off about the Savile investigation.

The Sunday Times is published by News International, an arm of Rupert Murdoch's global News Corp. empire, and has no corporate ties to The New York Times.

Thompson acknowledged being warned about what was happening at "Newsnight" by a BBC journalist during a company cocktail reception late last year, but he said the journalist never "set out what allegations `Newsnight' were investigating or had been investigating."

Thompson said he followed the matter up with other executives who told him the "Newsnight" investigation was canceled on journalistic grounds -- suggesting that they believed there wasn't enough evidence or news interest for an expose on Savile.

"I had no reason to believe that anyone in the BBC was withholding controversial or incriminating material," Thompson wrote in his letter to Wilson, the lawmaker.

Wilson told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he has written to Thompson again seeking more answers.

"There are questions about how much the journalist told him about the `Newsnight' investigation that need to be cleared up as quickly as possible," Wilson said, adding that Thompson said he is willing to answer questions before the parliamentary committee looking into the matter and the BBC's own inquiry.

He said Thompson's fitness to serve as The New York Times chief depends on the outcome of the various inquiries.

Those inquiries have drawn the attention of The New York Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who on Tuesday asked Times readers 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 New York Times chief.

"His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism -- profoundly," she wrote. "It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."

Sullivan said while finding an answer was "not as easy as it sounds ... all these questions ought to be asked."

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