Is Mark Thompson the Next Judy Miller?

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Mark Thompson. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

For the last few months, Britain has been consumed by its own version of the Penn State scandal — allegations that the recently deceased BBC children's television presenter and national institution Jimmy Savile was a pedophile who was tacitly enabled by his employer for decades. The story has been mostly ignored in America, but it could affect the closest thing this country has to the BBC, the New York Times. Mark Thompson, the former BBC director general hired by Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to run the newspaper in August, has faced intense scrutiny about what he knew about an unaired news segment examining the allegations against Savile. The report was killed while Thompson was still in charge of the British TV network. Thompson first denied knowing anything about it, but then confessed in the Times he had indeed heard about the report at a cocktail party after it was killed.

Many have questioned whether it’s plausible that Thompson didn’t know in advance about the existence of a TV report by and about his own network, especially one that could badly damage the BBC's reputation. And if he didn’t know about it, why not? 

If Thompson seemed curiously incurious, so too does Sulzberger Jr.  The family steward of the Times has said he fully stands behind Thompson, defending him with the same vigor he did reporter Judith Miller after the Iraq War. You'll recall that Sulzberger defended Miller's first amendment rights for two years before questioning her role in the Valerie Plame affair that rocked Washington six years ago. By the time he finally asked to see what was in her notebooks regarding the CIA agent Plame and discovered she had misled the paper about her source, Scooter Libby, who lied under oath trying to defend vice-president Dick Cheney, it was too late. 

Similarly, Sulzberger has done limited due diligence with Thompson: According to a person familiar with the situation, Sulzberger has not asked Thompson for emails or other records from his time at the BBC, nor done any further inquiries beyond what is reported in the newspaper. Even after learning that Thompson had heard of the BBC report on Savile — after initially telling Sulzberger he had never heard of it — Sulzberger continues to take Thompson’s word for it.

Sulzberger hired Thompson in hopes of expanding the Times' digital business, much as he did at the BBC, even though the BBC is a government-subsidized company. Then reports emerged last month that the BBC had killed a news report on Savile, supposedly because there was not enough evidence to support claims that he molested hundreds of children (though it reportedly featured one on-camera witness). Instead, the BBC aired a Christmas special celebrating Savile’s career after his death last year. 

Times staffers have openly questioned whether Thompson willfully avoided knowing the details of the news report so as to duck implication. Joe Nocera, in his column yesterday, said he hoped Sulzberger’s “faith in Thompson is warranted.” Given the cloud of ickiness around the whole thing, one senior executive I spoke with wished Thompson would voluntarily decide not to take the job. 

The fate of the New York Times is now set for Friday, November 9, the last business day before Thompson begins his job and starts collecting $3 million a year from the financially beleaguered paper. A BBC inquiry into the matter also begins next week, but the results won't come out until much later. If any emails turn up showing Thompson had prior knowledge of the BBC report on Savile, the Times’ reputation would be damaged, not least because of its own tough reportage on molestation cover-ups inside the Catholic church and at Penn State. It would also heap further misery on Sulzberger, whose reputation has already been tarred in recent years for a litany of financial failures and bad judgment. 

On the other hand, a lot of big decisions about the Times' digital business have been put on hold until Thompson’s arrival, and after suffering a massive loss in last week’s quarterly earnings report, the paper can ill afford to wait for Sulzberger to find another leader. In Sulzberger’s cost-benefit analysis, it seems, rapidly diminishing advertising revenues are a more pressing concern than the risk of yet another hit to its reputation. In other words, asking too many questions at this point may be simply too expensive.