NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Times public editor has questioned whether incoming chief executive Mark Thompson, the former head of the BBC, is fit to serve as the company’s top official as a scandal shakes Britain’s most prestigious broadcaster.
One Wall Street analyst called for the New York Times Co, which publishes its namesake newspaper and the Boston Globe, to delay Thompson taking over the company. That added more pressure on executives to address the matter on the company’s earnings conference call on Thursday.
The BBC has been damaged by the scandal involving one of its most famous entertainers, the late Jimmy Savile, who is accused of sexually abusing hundreds of women and girls over the course of six decades. Savile, the eccentric host of the “Top of the Pops” music show, died last year at the age of 84.
Thompson held the top job as director general at the BBC from 2004 until September and also held the title of editor-in-chief, according to a description of the Director General’s duties on the BBC website.
“How likely is it that (Thompson) knew nothing?” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote in a blog post on 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.”
A New York Times spokesman declined to comment.
No evidence has emerged in police and parliamentary investigations that shows Thompson knew about the decision to pull the Newsnight program or about Savile’s alleged behaviour.
Thompson did not respond immediately to an email seeking comment about the public editor’s column.
The allegations enveloping the British broadcaster hinge partly on the BBC’s decision last year to shelve a show at its flagship “Newsnight” program investigating Savile. Rival broadcaster ITV aired a bombshell report this month about Savile and the claims against him, which had been rumoured for years.
Last week, Thompson said in a statement, ”I was not notified or briefed about the Newsnight investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation.
In her post, Sullivan commended the paper for “reporting this story regularly”.
As public editor and a representative of readers, Sullivan writes about issues affecting the newspaper independent from News York Times management, including chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Jill Abramson.
Since stepping into the role in September, she has already made waves including a post that criticized the paper’s decision not to publish on the front page a story about a congressional hearing into attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month in which four Americans were killed.
A representative from Sullivan’s office said she declined to comment further on her blog about Thompson. An email sent to Sulzberger seeking comment was not returned immediately.
Sullivan’s post on Thompson follows New York Times former executive editor Bill Keller, who wrote a column last week drawing a parallel between Savile and Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was recently sentenced to what amounts to life imprisonment for molesting children.
The New York Times tapped Thompson in August as CEO, a role that had been vacant eight months after the company ousted its former CEO Janet Robinson last year.
Thompson is expected to start with the Times on November 12. A New York Times spokesman told the paper on Tuesday, “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.”
Like all Times executives, Thompson is an “at will” employee meaning he can leave or the company can terminate his employment at any time.
He stands to make $6 million next year including his base salary, bonuses based on targets and $3 million in performance-based options.
The unfolding Savile scandal has also caught the attention of some analysts in the United States.
“The New York Times should delay (Thompson‘s) start date until there is more clarity,” said Doug Arthur, an analyst with Evercore Partners who follows the New York Times.
“It seems to me he will have to attend a hearing in the UK parliament. That is going to be a distraction. It’s unfortunate. It’s an unexpected complication.”
In a hearing with British lawmakers on Tuesday, BBC Director General George Entwistle denied that the BBC helped cover up allegations that Savile preyed on women.
Thompson said the Newsnight investigation was mentioned to him by a journalist at a party last year, but he was later told it was not going ahead for journalistic reasons.
“I was never formally notified about the Newsnight investigation and was not briefed about the allegations they were examining and to what extent, if at all, those allegations related to Savile’s work at the BBC,” he said in a letter to a British lawmaker on Tuesday.
Thompson added he would be happy to appear in front of the parliamentary committee or any other inquiry in future.
In an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday, Thompson restated that he was not aware of the program until after it was cancelled.
“I talked to senior management in BBC News and reported the conversation I had at the party and asked was there a problem,” Thompson told the paper.
“I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable.”
Newsnight’s editor, Peter Rippon, stepped aside on Monday after the BBC said his explanation for shelving the story had been “inaccurate or incomplete”.
Reporting By Jennifer Saba; Editing by Edward Tobin, Paul Tait, Jean Yoon, Theodore d'Afflisio, Andrew Hay