New York Times defends incoming chief amid Jimmy Savile BBC scandal

By Raphael Satter

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24 2012 4:22 p.m. MDT

Cameras are seen above a sign at the BBC Television Centre, in London Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012. The BBC is facing questions over sexual abuse allegations against former television presenter Jimmy Savile.

Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press

LONDON — The New York Times stood by its incoming chief Wednesday as he denied knowledge of a BBC child sex abuse scandal that threatened to follow him from one of Britain's most respected news organizations to one of America's.

But even as new CEO Mark Thompson was getting support from his new bosses, the Times ombudsman questioned his fitness for the job.

And in Britain, a lawmaker said he had more questions for Thompson.

As Thompson prepares to take over as president of The New York 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 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," Christie 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 CEO 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.

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

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 shelved — Thompson, 55, the BBC director-general from 2004 until last month, is being quizzed about his role as well.

In a letter to 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.

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

Thompson said he heard in late December from a BBC journalist at a company cocktail party that the broadcaster's "Newsnight" program had been investigating Savile, but 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 for journalistic reasons, suggesting they believed there wasn't enough evidence.

"I had no reason to believe that his conduct was a pressing concern," Thompson told the Times. "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."

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