NEW YORK, N.Y. – New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson is starting his job on Monday amid a widening scandal at his former employer, the BBC.
When the Times hired him in August, Thompson was hailed as someone who could help the company generate new revenue at a time when print publications are suffering from the loss of readers and advertisers. Thompson had spent eight years as director-general of the British Broadcasting Corp., a publicly funded television network that boasts a weekly global audience of 166 million people over multiple platforms, including radio, digital satellite and cable channels.
In recent months, Thompson has faced questions over a decision by the BBC’s “Newsnight” program last December to shelve an investigation into child sexual-abuse allegations against renowned BBC children’s television host Jimmy Savile. That decision was made while Thompson was still in charge of the company. Thompson has said he became aware of the investigative report long after it had been cancelled. When he inquired about its cancellation, he said he was told it had been terminated for journalistic reasons.
Savile, who died in October 2011, was known for his eccentricity, garish tracksuits and Cuban cigars. Early last month, BBC rival ITV aired a documentary which detailed sexual abuse allegations against Savile. Since then, scores of women have come forward, alleging that they were abused by Savile when they were underage girls, sometimes in BBC dressing rooms. Savile’s behaviour was the subject of speculation long before that, but it was never formally investigated by the BBC.
Thompson’s successor as the BBC’s top executive, George Entwistle, resigned on Saturday after one of the network’s news programs wrongly implied that a former British politician sexually abused a child.
After the Savile scandal broke, Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sent the company’s staff a letter that said he was satisfied Thompson had no role in the decision to scrap the investigative segment on Savile.
The Times Co. did not make Thompson available for interviews on Monday. A spokesman said he is spending his first day on the job meeting with employees and learning the company.
In a memo to staff on Monday, Sulzberger welcomed Thompson and said his experience “will be of great value to our company.” He did not mention the BBC scandal.
“Mark will lead us as we continue our digital transformation, bolster our international growth, drive our productivity and introduce new technologies that will help us become better storytellers and enrich the experience for our readers and viewers,” Sulzberger wrote. “That is what he did as Director-General of the BBC.”
While leading the BBC, Thompson tightened expenses —and became unpopular with some employees— by cutting jobs and pensions. He also oversaw the company’s expansion of multimedia offerings such as Web content and digital channels. His period of leadership culminated in the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics in London last summer.
As the BBC scandal widened, media watchers such as news industry analyst Ken Doctor said Thompson should step aside “for the good of the Times.”
Doctor, an analyst with Outsell, a global research and advisory firm and also writes a weekly column for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, said there are “lingering questions about the extent that Thompson knew about the allegations.”
“At the least, this is going to create a furor around Thompson, around the familiar Watergate questions of, ‘What did he know?’ and ‘When did he know it?,’ and it’s a major distraction for The New York Times, when the New York Times is in a huge transition mode for itself,” Doctor said.
AP Business Writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis and AP Writer Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this story.