The New York Times is certainly showing some independence from its new boss. In an online article Friday displayed prominently on the paper’s homepage, the Grey Lady explored what its incoming CEO and president, Mark Thompson, knew about the Jimmy Savile scandal during Thompson’s time as director general at the BBC.
The revelation that Savile, one of the public service broadcaster’s biggest stars, had allegedly abused hundreds of underage girls, sometimes on BBC premises, has—-in the words of BBC Trust chair Chris Patten—unleashed a “tsunami of filth” that has already cost Thompson’s successor, George Entwistle, his job. Several high ranking BBC executives and editors have been forced to “step aside” from their positions while investigations are underway into a Newsnight expose on the abuse allegations, which was cancelled in December 2011 after Savile’s death, even as three glowing tributes to the DJ and TV presenter aired to the nation.
When the scandal became public in October, two weeks after Thompson had departed the BBC, he initially claimed that didn’t know any details about the canned Newsnight report. More recently, he’s said that he was not “formally notified” about the claims, and was unaware that any of Savile’s alleged abuses happened on BBC premises.
But every new detail seems to turn up another inconsistency. It’s now possible to draw up a timeline of events, based partly on a blog by former Independent Television News (ITN) chief Professor Stewart Purvis, and most importantly on the leg work done by a freelance journalist, Miles Goslett, who first raised the questions about Savile and the Newsnight investigation almost a year ago. Here’s a quick rundown of the tangled plot:
Oct. 29, 2011: Savile dies at the age of 83. He’s praised in glowing obituaries that note his charitable work and 50-year TV legacy. Meanwhile, Newsnight reporter Liz MacLean and producer Meirion Jones commence an investigation into allegations that Savile molested underage girls.
Dec. 2, 2011: The head of BBC news, Helen Boaden, and the head of BBC television, George Entwistle, have a brief discussion at the Women in Film & Television awards lunch about a Newsnight investigation into Savile.
Dec. 6, 2011: Newsnight editor Peter Rippon cancels the Savile investigation,which had already secured testimony from at least four people (one recorded on camera) who claimed Savile had abused them on BBC premises in the 1970s.
Dec. 7, 2011: Helen Deller at BBC Publicity asks for more information on the Newsnight program to prepare for pre-transmission publicity and reaction.
Dec. 19, 2011: At a pre-Christmas cocktail party, BBC foreign correspondent Caroline Hawley reportedly tells Thompson the "broad context" of the cancelled Newsnight report.
Dec. 21, 2011: Having been tipped off about the canceled Newsnight expose, freelancer Goslett contacts the BBC Press Office, which reportedly confirms the investigation has been axed for "editorial reasons."
Dec. 26, 2011: Primetime BBC 1 channel runs a Christmas special tribute show to Savile, one of three broadcast on TV and radio over the holidays.
Jan. 8, 2012: The Daily Mirror reveals that the Newsnight investigation was axed, yet stops short of exploring the extent of allegations against Savile.
Feb. 8, 2012: Having apparently approached various national papers with the story to no avail, freelance journalist Goslett manages to publish the allegations about Savile from the cancelled Newsnight investigation in the monthly magazine the Oldie, edited by former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams.
March 19, 2012: Thompson announces he will leave the BBC the coming fall after eight years as director general.
May 18, 2012: Having submitted a Freedom of Information request to Thompson’s office, Goslett says he calls Thompson aide Jessica Cecil and tells her he wants to talk to the Director General about claims that Savile abused people on BBC premises.
July 4, 2012: George Entwistle is appointed director general of the BBC to succeed Thompson in mid-September.
Aug. 15, 2012: A formal announcement is made that Thompson has been appointed president and chief executive officer of the The New York Times.
Sept. 6, 2012: Lawyers for the Sunday Times, which is about to publish a piece by Goslett, present the BBC with the allegations that Savile abused girls on BBC premises and that the Newsnight investigation was cancelled. Acting on behalf of Thompson and Boaden, BBC lawyers reportedly threaten to sue the Sunday Times for defamation if the allegations are published.
Sept. 18, 2012: Thompson leaves the BBC to be replaced by Entwistl.
Oct. 2, 2012: After a big run-up in the press, ITV’s Exposure documentary airs multiple allegations that Savile abused schoolgirls attending his BBC shows.
Oct. 19, 2012: Following hundreds of leads, Scotland Yard opens up Operation Yewtree, a criminal investigation, reportedly into “Savile and others.” By mid-November, Yewtree will identify 450 potential victims.
Oct. 23, 2012: In response to a letter from MP Rob Wilson, Thompson explains: ”I did not know at the time or for the remainder of my period in office whether the Newsnight Savile investigation included allegations related to the BBC.”
Nov. 12, 2012: Thompson formally takes up his role as president and CEO of the New York Times.
Whether the inconsistencies in this timelines are the result of aides not passing on information to BBC executives or not, it still remains increasingly improbable for Thompson to maintain that, as editor-in-chief, he could have been so incurious or out of the loop about the emerging scandal, which involved one of the BBC’s most famous personalities. As the British say, it could be “cock up rather than cover up,” but either way, Thompson is in an uneviable position. Rather like James Murdoch, who as chair of News International claimed he was unaware that phone hacking was rife in News of the World, Thompson is stuck between seeming either an incompetent leader or a less than forthcoming one--a no-win choice between looking like a fool or a knave.