BBC Pedophile Scandal Back in the Headlines, But Not at the NY Times

December 13, 2013 - 7:14 AM

mark thompson

New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, the former BBC director general, testifies before a House of Commons committee in London on Monday Sept. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/PA)

(Update: Adds comment from New York Times spokesperson)

( – A year has passed since an independent inquiry into the BBC’s handling of a major pedophile scandal accepted the word of its former director-general Mark Thompson that he did not know about the scandal until he left the BBC to take the job as New York Times Co. CEO.

But questions about that finding again are making headlines, in Britain if not at the NYT.

The publication of a conversation between a journalist and the man who headed the inquiry, Nick Pollard, has focused new attention on Thompson’s account of what he knew, and when, about allegations of child sex abuse by the late British TV personality Jimmy Savile.

In the taped conversation, Pollard conceded that he had made a “mistake” in excluding from his final report information that challenged Thompson’s version.

Pollard had been tasked to probe whether the BBC’s Newsnight program in late 2011 had erred in abandoning an investigation into the abuse claims. There were suspicions the decision was linked to in-house concerns that an expose would clash with tribute programs for the recently-deceased Savile, planned for the Christmas period that year.

After weighing testimony from the individuals involved, Pollard concluded in his final report last December that the Newsnight decision had not been improper.

Pollard did identify serious BBC management failures, but he accepted Thompson’s word that he did not know about the Savile allegations until after he left the BBC in September 2012 to take up his new position in New York.

It did not take long for that key conclusion in the report to be undermined: It soon emerged that the BBC’s then-head of news, Helen Boaden, had told the Pollard Review – by means of a letter from her lawyer – that she had discussed the abuse allegations in a phone conversation with Thompson, about nine months before he left the BBC.

Although Boaden’s account appeared to contradict Thompson’s, Pollard did not mention it in his final report. Instead, he concluded that he had “no reason to doubt” that Thompson was unaware of the Savile allegations.

(Exactly what Boaden told Thompson in the phone conversation is not known. But in a May 2013 letter to a British parliamentary committee, she wrote, “My recollection is that I told Mark what I knew: that Newsnight had been investigating thirty year old allegations of sexual abuse of teenage girls by Jimmy Savile at an Approved School in Surrey. The editor did not think the allegations stood up so had discontinued the investigation for legitimate editorial reasons. I added that the Surrey Police had looked at the case more recently and decided not to pursue it. Mark thanked me and rang off. We did not discuss it again.”)

In a later conversation with an unnamed journalist, Pollard said his decision not to mention Boaden’s recollection of the phone conversation in his final report was “a mistake.”

“You could say it doesn’t particularly reflect well on me that I overlooked this in the report,” he told the journalist.

The conversation was meant to be off-the-record but a recording was obtained by Conservative lawmaker Rob Wilson and was published in full by London’s Daily Telegraph on Wednesday.

Pollard did not say in the recording that Boaden’s evidence changed his conclusions regarding Thompson. But he did comment that the former director-general had “painted himself into a corner” through his unequivocal denials.

Thompson told Britain’s Channel 4 News last September that he and Boaden “had slightly different recollections about” the phone conversation.

Invited to respond to the latest developments, the vice-president of corporate communications at the New York Times, Eileen Murphy, said in an emailed comment Friday, “Mr. Thompson has spoken at great length about this matter; he has always told the truth about his involvement and he gave a complete and accurate account to Nick Pollard.”

Governing trust won't reopen inquiry

The emergence of the recording has been an embarrassment to the BBC’s governing Trust, which spent three million pounds ($4.9 million) on the Pollard Review. The bulk of the national broadcaster’s income comes from compulsory annual license fees paid by television viewers.

After Wilson said he planned to make the recording public BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten earlier this week warned him that if he did so he risked legal action.

On Wednesday, members of the Trust met to discuss the issue, and later issued a statement making clear that it would not be reopening the Pollard inquiry.

“The unanimous conclusion of the four trustees is that they are satisfied that Nick Pollard properly weighed all the evidence that was available to him and that the conclusions of his report are robust,” it said.

“They remain confident that Nick Pollard conducted an independent, fair and thorough examination of the issues raised by the dropped Newsnight investigation.”

The Trust did acknowledge, however, that “it would have been preferable” for Boaden’s information about her telephone conversation with Thompson to have been mentioned in Pollard’s final report. The trustees also called Pollard’s interview with the journalist “regrettable.”

Since Wednesday, the latest developments in the lingering controversy have been covered by leading British publications, including the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian, the Spectator, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the BBC itself – but not by the New York Times.

A search of the paper’s website, as well as a Nexis database search, brings up only three stories published by the NYT since January 1 this year that include both “Savile” and “Mark Thompson.”

All three of those stories (dated June 13, August 10 and September 5) related to matters arising during Thompson’s stint at the helm of the BBC that were unrelated to the pedophile scandal, mentioning the Savile affair only in passing.

In an October 2012 memo to staff, NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger addressed concerns that had been raised about their incoming CEO, expressed his confidence in Thompson, and assured them that the NYT would “cover the Savile story with objectivity and rigor.”