Keeping Tabs on Mark Thompson, the New York Times Co.'s Controversial New CEO

The New York Times has aggressively covered lurid scandals involving its perceived ideological opponents, from questioning what Pope Benedict XVI knew about the sex abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church, to the phone-hacking committed in Rupert Murdoch's tabloid empire. But when it comes to a pedophilia scandal and coverup that has been brought into the New York Times Co.'s own backyard, the coverage is muted and tamed.

Mark Thompson, new chief executive for the NYT Co., was director general of the BBC from 2004 until 2011, and was in charge when the decision was made by higherups in 2011 to abandon a 'Newsnight' story investigating accusations of pedophilia against long-time BBC star Jimmy Savile.

So what did Thompson know about the scandal in his own empire, and when did he learn it? And will the Times ever address the question with half the intensity it brought to its coverage of the Catholic Church and Murdoch?

As Thompson's fledgling tenure proceeds, Times Watch will keep a running tab on how the paper itself and the media in general is handling the controversy in its own backyard.

Savile was an eccentric fixture at the BBC for decades, hosting programs that included kids’ shows. Since his death in October 2011, Savile has been accused of hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse of underage girls. Many allege the abuse occurred on BBC property and with girls as young as 12. Thompson claims to have known nothing about rumors about Savile over the years, and has said he had no hand in squelching the investigative report about the Savile charges last year. But his accounts and those of others at the BBC conflict, and questions remain.

Thompson was top man at the BBC when the BBC’s “Newsnight” program produced and abruptly canceled a segment investigating accusations of pedophilia against the eccentric Savile. In death, Savile now stands accused of sexually abusing more than 300 women and underage girls. In December 2011, the BBC’s “Newsnight” prepared a report on the charges, but it was killed by higher-ups in the organization. The next week the BBC ran a series of tribute documentaries to Savile.

Thompson has admitted to being told about the cancellation at a party, though it’s unclear whether he was given the reason for the cancellation. And his account has shifted. Thompson initially said that he didn't know about either the abuse allegations against Savile, or of the “Newsnight” investigation, but later admitted that he had heard that the investigation had been stopped.

Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger remains a strong supporter, and executive editor Jill Abramson chided her own public editor while defending Thompson at a recent Business Insider conference in New York. "The people who have been saying he perhaps isn’t the best choice for the best job are the public editor, who does not actually work in the newsroom, and one of our columnists, who work for the editorial page...I don’t think the public editor looked at our coverage."

London-based Times reporters John Burns and Alan Cowell touched on the controversy on Wednesday in the International section ("Top BBC Figures Acknowledge ‘Errors’ in Reporting Scandals") noting Thompson recently testified in the case for a report iexpected in mid-December.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.