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September 1, 2014

The New York Times and the Thompson Effect: Blow Over or Blowback?

It’s not exactly the entrance Mark Thompson had planned for his first day at the Times, but it’s an entrance.

Call it dis-harmonic convergence. In the days leading up to and including his first day on the job, a new news company CEO finds his name well-splashed on its prominent pages, print and digital. Questions, only partially answered, linger in the air. It’s quite awkward.

Mark Thomspon, though, has started. Though I suggested (“For the New York Times’ Sake, Mark Thompson Should Step Aside“) that the best thing for the Times was for him to step aside before this day, my hope is that the Thompson leadership works out well for the company. Why? These days, all quality journalism is imperiled. We need the Times to succeed, and Arthur Sulzberger believes Thompson’s global-reaching, digital-transforming smarts are what the company needs in the post-Janet Robinson era.

We’ll see how much he can focus on that task, as the meltdown at the BBC gets gooier and gooier. Its news editor and her deputy were effectively suspended (“stepping aside,” themselves) over the weekend, following the forced departure of Director General George Entwistle, Thompson’s successor. The scandal rolled through the weekend and picked up steam in Britain today. In its wake, and in light of Thompson’s first day, it’s worth pulling apart some of the issues involved, especially as they do or don’t relate to Mark Thompson. Let’s try it as a Q and A.

What is Mark Thompson accused of?

The range of accusation so far ranges from “incurious” to “willfully ignorant.” Given that the original scandal here — the Jimmy Savile child abuse mainly happened in the ’70s, there is certainly no hint that Thompson knew of the actual, alleged crimes, anytime close to their occurrence. Or, is there an accusation of an intentional cover-up of them by him or his management. In fact, Thompson, by most accounts, is a quite decent fellow.

What is at question is how, as chief executive (the Director General of the BBC) for eight years, he dealt with the revelation of those crimes, and of why his own 60-Minutes-like program, NewsNight, scuttled its own story into the Savile story — just weeks before the BBC ran three tributes to longtime icon Savile, upon his October, 2011 death (Good BBC timeline of the affair, here.)

Here, our best evidence comes directly from the New York Times itself. Investigative editor Matt Purdy, dispatched to London by the Times, wrote the (so far) definitive story on Nov. 4. Entitled, “As Scandal Flared, BBC’s Leaders Missed Red Flags,” the piece outlines Thompson’s, at best, incuriousness. The definitive passage from Purdy’s story:

Mr. Thompson has said he knew nothing of the Savile investigation before it was canceled by the editor of the BBC’s “Newsnight” program. As for what he knew afterward, his statements have evolved: He first said he was unaware of the investigation, but then acknowledged he was subsequently told of its cancellation by a reporter at a cocktail party. He said while he “may have formed an impression” about possible areas of a Savile investigation, including his charity work, he was unaware of child-sexual-abuse accusations.

Interviews with former BBC executives and officials here in London show that in the months after the investigation was canceled, Mr. Thompson and his top executives repeatedly missed opportunities to pursue a fuller picture of the “Newsnight” reporting, the fate of the program and, perhaps, of Mr. Savile.

In the two months after the inquiry’s cancellation, seven reports appeared in the British press about the scuttled investigation and the accusations against the longhaired, cigar-chomping Mr. Savile, who died last year at age 84. The headline in The Daily Mail Online read: “BBC axes exposé into Jimmy Savile teen sex allegations.”

According to former executives, at least some of those articles were part of a packet of press clippings sent each morning to the network’s top executives. Mr. Thompson’s daily 9:15 a.m. conference call with his top executives often included discussions from the clippings file.

Whether through a series of near misses or a more deliberate avoidance, the executives failed to confront questions about Mr. Savile and the possibility that, in decades past, the BBC was somehow complicit in his behavior.”

When Purdy asked Thompson why, given all the other press attention, he didn’t question NewsNight’s cancellation of its own investigation, this is how he responded:

“…But after he learned of the scuttled investigation late last December, he said he raised it with his news chiefs, who told him that the editor of “Newsnight” stopped it for journalistic reasons. “I wasn’t told any specific lines of inquiry and certainly not anything related to the BBC,” he said, adding that amid the flood of business, he was willing to be assured there was nothing to worry about.

“It didn’t occur to me that there was a contemporary corporate interest to defend,” Mr. Thompson said. “You can say it’s a lack of imagination.” But he pointed out that Mr. Savile’s heyday was decades ago — he retired in the mid-1990s — and that his association with him was watching him on television as a child.”

Purdy’s pieces lays out other missed chances at knowledge and action, and offers one of the increasingly popular explanations: “the ritualized BBC bureaucracy.”

The payoff quote comes from a Tory MP, Damian Collins, who sums up a view from outside the BBC bureaucracy:

“Would not a program being made by one of the BBC’s flagship news programs bringing forth very serious criminal allegations about someone who was an icon for children in this country, created as an icon by the BBC for very vulnerable people as a result of his celebrated BBC status, would the creation of a program like that or even the preparation for broadcast of a program like that not routinely have gone to the editor in chief? [Thompson]”….“If this [ doesn’t qualify, you wonder what the bar is.”

Sum it up, and Thompson’s performance in the Savile affair is judged at best to be less than competent. To be clear, though, there is a mushrooming quality to this scandal. There is no indication of conspiracy, but rather gross incompetence within BBC management overall, a management assembled and/or perpetuated by Thompson. That’s hardly the resume that Arthur Sulzberger thought he was buying. Though assuaged by Purdy’s report to proceed with Thompson, Sulzberger clearly read it as a sufficiently clean bill of health. Some of us read it differently.

How big a mushroom cloud may erupt?

The biggest only partially answered question here is exactly why the NewsNight story on Savile was killed.  Producer Meirion Jones warned his NewsNight editor Peter Rippon that if the story didn’t proceed, NewsNight — and the BBC overall — would be accused of cover-up. Rippon has since resigned. Let’s remember the BBC is paid for largely by the taxpayers in Britain. About £3.6 billion, or $5.7 billion, of which is generated by TV license tax of viewers of £145.50 ($230) a year.

Feeding the cloud anew has been latest, post-Thompson mistake. NewsNight, the program that failed to get to the bottom of the Savile affair, wrongly identified a retired member of Parliament as a child abuser — without ever showing a photo of the man to the person who had named him as the guilty party.  Is it fair to associate this “McAlpine affair” with the Savile affair? Certainly the thread is the BBC’s unbelievable mismanagement. One way or another, the new issue reinforces the notion that the BBC is a news organization poorly structured for accurate investigative journalism.

The BBC may seem to be a public trust, but it’s also a political football. At present, there are two formal inquiries. Given the mushroom effect, expect more and deeper questioning. Among those who will be called to testify: Mark Thompson.

Since Thompson is only in charge of the business side of the New York Times, what’s the big deal?

Emily Bell, Guardian alum and now director of Columbia University’s Tow Center, has posed this question. Her Sunday CJR column well lays out the BBC’s current scandal in light of past ones, ones that Thompson gets credit for cleaning up in his eight-year-tenure, and says:  ”One comforting note for the highly anxious editorial floor at the NYT is that Thompson has nothing to do with the editorial management of the paper.”

Yes, editor Jill Abramson reports directly to Arthur Sulzberger. How does it look, though, to the outside-the-newsroom world to have a new CEO mucked up in British scandal? Why put the Times and Timesmen and Timeswomen in that position? No one is suggesting that Thompson will mess with the Times’ journalism, but he’s still CEO — and the now very public face — of a company still fighting (a meager $8.5 million in third quarter operating income) for its very survival.

Let’s look at it through another prism.

Let’s say a New York Times employee had abused and raped underage children, some within the Times’ own building. Let’s say various reports on that criminality had percolated through the building. Let’s say a Times investigative team had, years later, focused on the story, and then dropped it, without clear explanation, as the company proceeded to fete the soon-to-be accused. Let’s say word of the crimes circulated in the rival press.

Would we say that the Times CEO on that watch would escape blameless? I doubt it, especially in the post-Jerry Sandusky era.

For the Times, this is a case of borrowed trouble, in the most basic sense.

Where does this scandal fit, with, say, Hackgate?

Two completely differently things, right? Well, someone can deconstruct that proposition at length, but let’s consider what most of the public will hear:

  • Children abused (and how does Jimmy Savile’s alleged 300 victims compare to the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone?)
  • Tawdry British media, with lots of forced resignations
  • Executive deniability (Thompson’s explanation that he missed red flags sadly sounds too much like James Murdoch’s, when he appeared before Parliament.)
  • Suspicions of cover-up

Is the conflating of Hackgate and this BBC scandal fair? We’ll see. Let’s be clear though. This one will quickly push Hackgate to the background. So, instead of the New York Times playing the white knight, aiding the Guardian in its disclosure of Hackgate, it now gets sucked into the scandal of the day, and may appear somehow involved, given Thompson now heading the company. Mark that fair or unfair, but it will be a reality.

The wind in this scandal’s sails is only getting stronger. Arthur Sulzberger has calculated that it will blow over. For the Times’ sake, let’s hope that’s true and that the blowback from Britain’s explosion of scandal doesn’t push the Times’ off its corrected course (digital circulation to the rescue), just as it is finding a new route to sustainability.

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