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New York Times Ombudsman Raises Questions About Incoming CEO Amid BBC Scandal

Mark Thompson
Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Mark Thompson, who used to run the British broadcaster, reiterates he had no role in a dropped BBC report about abuse charges against late TV host Jimmy Savile.

LONDON - Mark Thompson, who left his role as the top executive of the BBC last month and is set to start as CEO of the New York Times Co. next month, continues to face questions about his role in the scandal about sexual abuse allegations against late TV host Jimmy Savile.

Thompson reiterated in an interview with the New York Times that he was not aware of a planned investigative report on Savile for BBC news show Newsnight until after it had been dropped.

The comments came as the New York Times ombudsman raised questions about whether he is the right leader for the newspaper company. "How likely is it that [Thompson] knew nothing?" Margaret Sullivan wrote in a blog post Tuesday. "His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism - profoundly. It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."

In his interview and a letter to the British parliament, Thompson said that he found out about the Newsnight report about Savile only during a company holiday party last December. He said that he did not ask a reporter for specifics, but followed up the next day with two BBC News executives.

"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 Times.  He added that their response was that the story was dropped "for journalistic reasons."

There has been no evidence or claims that Thompson knew about the decision to pull the Newsnight report earlier or about the charges against Savile.

"There is nothing to suggest that I acted inappropriately in the handling of this matter," Thompson said. "I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable."

The paper said the New York Times Company can end the employment agreement with Thompson at any time. A New York Times spokesman said the newspaper’s board had been informed of the BBC scandal, but added: "Mark will join The New York Times Company as president and CEO the week of Nov. 12. 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."

New BBC director general George Entwistle faced questions about the Savile affair from a committee of the British parliament on Tuesday. British newspapers gave him mixed reviews at best, with many criticizing that he didn't always know exact figures, that he didn't seem to ask enough questions in his former role overseeing all BBC TV operations and that his apologies for a past culture that seemingly allowed abuse didn't go far enough.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai