Times must aggressively cover BBC’s troubles

By Margaret Sullivan
The New York Times

One of the most difficult challenges for news organizations is reporting on what goes on inside their own corporate walls. Two global media companies, the BBC and The New York Times, are dealing with that challenge right now, as a complicated sexual abuse scandal – with a media scandal component — unfolds in Britain.

On Tuesday, the director general of the BBC, George Entwistle, was grilled by Parliament about his role in the events at the well-respected British media company.

A tough investigative committee is raking him over the coals about whether he knew what was going on when the BBC killed an investigative segment on its “Newsnight” program about a celebrity TV personality, Jimmy Savile, accused of sexually abusing hundreds of young girls. Mr. Savile died last year.

Killing the story has impugned the BBC’s integrity.

Mr. Entwistle, though, was not the director general of the BBC when all of this was going on last year.

That was Mark Thompson, who is now the incoming president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Mr. Thompson was said to be in the Times Building on Monday for preliminary meetings, but he hasn’t started yet. In fact, Times reporters and editors were reminded on Monday in a style note not to refer to him in articles as the current president and chief executive:

Mr. Thompson will be the president and C.E.O. of The New York Times Company starting Nov. 12, per Robert Christie, senior vice president of corporate communications. Until then, he is still “incoming.”

The style note even resulted in a correction on the Web site of The Times.

To its credit, The Times is reporting this story regularly through its London bureau, and has displayed it several times on the Web site’s home page. The London article was summarized in a brief on the front page on Tuesday.

Mr. Thompson has been quoted repeatedly saying he knew nothing about the investigation being conducted by the “Newsnight” program, or at least that he was never formally notified about it. Here’s The Guardian’s report on that.

How likely is it that he knew nothing? A director general of a giant media company is something like a newspaper’s publisher. Would a publisher be very likely to know if an investigation of one of its own people on sexual abuse charges had been killed? The answer to that is not as easy as it sounds. Because of the intentional separation between editorial and business-side operations, publishers usually don’t know about editorial decisions — unless they are very big ones, fraught with legal implications. A Reuters story explores this subject.

And for that matter, how likely is it that the Times Company will continue with its plan to bring Mr. Thompson on as chief executive? (It’s worth noting that as public editor, I have no inside knowledge on such corporate matters.) 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.

All these questions ought to be asked. I hope The Times rises to the challenge and thoroughly reports what it finds. The Times might start by publishing an in-depth interview with Mr. Thompson exploring what exactly he knew, and when, about what happened at the BBC. What are the implications of these problems for him as incoming Times chief executive? What are the implications for the Times Company to have its new C.E.O. – who needs to deal with many tough business challenges here – arriving with so much unwanted baggage?

As the BBC has found out in the most painful way, for The Times to pull its punches will not be a wise way to go.

Update: An article that included an interview with Mr. Thompson appears in Wednesday’s New York Times. The interview was conducted Tuesday at the Times building. The article also includes a statement from a Times spokesman affirming that Mr.Thompson is due to join The Times on Nov. 12.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on Oct. 24, 2012.

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