Friday, November 16, 2012

BBC scandal fallout at NY Times

It looks like the continuing child abuse scandals will also have ramifications for the NY Times.  Back in August I posted on the Times' decision to hire Mark Thompson as its new President and CEO.  The decision raised several eyebrows - Thompson, who had been Director General of the BBC, had no print experience and no commercial media experience; in addition the deal was quite lucrative ($1 million salary; with bonuses, $8 million for the first year) for an organization that had been losing a lot of money for a long time ($143 million last quarter alone).  Thompson started his new job at the Times this week.
  Thompson's tenure as Director General of the BBC included the period when the first abuse scandal (involving BBC presenter and personality Jimmy Savile) surfaced - and when someone at the BBC killed an investigation of the allegations by their news team.
  Thompson initially claimed to have no knowledge of the allegations or the questions surrounding Newsnight's investigation or its termination.  After documents started surfacing showing that his BBC office had been sent clippings of other news reports of the emerging scandal as part of the daily news briefing sent to BBC executives, and that his office had fielded numerous inquiries, Thompson reiterated his ignorance, saying he never bothered to read the morning clippings and wasn't told about any inquiries.  Then, he changed the wording of the denial a bit, to say that he had never been formally notified of any child abuse allegations or the Newsnight investigation.  Even that denial's being questioned as it now turns out that lawyers representing Mr. Thompson (while he was still BBC Director General) sent a letter to the London Sunday Times threatening to sue for libel if it carried any story about the Newsnight investigation or its cancellation of its investigation.  The letter, by the way, contained a detailed summary of the allegations against Savile.
  As questions mounted, NY Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., sent a letter to Times staff expressing his continued support for his new CEO.
"Our opinion was then and remains now that he possesses high ethical standards and is the ideal person to lead our company."
I've got to wonder a bit about the nature of that support and proclamations of ethics, as evidence mounts that, at a minimum, Thompson's office staff and lawyers were aware of both scandals (allegations that Savile had a long history of child abuse, including on BBC premises) and Newsnight's cancelled investigation), and thus Thompson had every opportunity to find out about them.  It's becoming pretty clear that one of three things is true - 1) Thompson's lying about his ignorance of the matters; 2) that as Director General of the BBC, he never bothered to follow current events, get briefings on inquiries and issues directed to his office from his staff, or bothered to read letters sent on his behalf by his lawyers; or  3) that he tried to insulate himself from matters by directing staff and lawyers to make sure they didn't "formally" tell him anything.
  As a former BBC producer and current member of Parliament Roger Gale quipped. Thompson was very well paid “to, apparently, not know what was going on under his own roof.”

  The NY Times' public editor reaches similar conclusions - 1) That Thompson, as editor in chief and Director General, should have known and had ample opportunity to find out; 2) That Thompson's story with respect to the Newsnight investigation has "evolved" (i.e., changed).  Still, he and Sulzberger feel that Times coverage of the BBC scandals and their new boss has been thorough, as if that, and not the personal ethics and competence of their new CEO, was the issue.

  In addition to the above, Thompson's likely to also get linked to the latest BBC/Newsnight child abuse scandal, where they falsely accused a retired politician of child abuse.  (The BBC's acknowledged its fault in a recent settlement of the resulting libel claim, along with coughing up a large settlement) As it looks now, a lot of the blame's likely to be directed at a bloated management structure and what seems a corporate culture that saw little of value in oversight or competence.  Structures and cultures that developed during Thompson's tenure, and under his direction.  And a lot of the people Thompson supervised and directed are stepping down in the wake of the scandals and the inquiry into management structures and decisions.  The emerging management issues does give some support to the latter two possibilities listed above: that Thompson's not that good a manager or executive.  Most analysts see the management (and newsroom) at the NY Times to already be quite bloated and inefficient, with little evidence of strong managerial skills - they don't need to get worse.

    Personally, I don't think any of these behaviors are good professional traits for leaders of news organizations.  They clearly do not reflect "high ethical standards" - either in business or in journalism. I'm getting the feeling that Thompson will prove to be another embarrassing gaffe in the NY Times' search for a CEO in recent years.  (And frankly, given his history, Sulzberger's evaluation doesn't help things).  For me, the question is how long before the Times feels the need to shed itself of its latest embarrassment.
Sources -  Times See No Evil CEO Mark Thompson's Veil of Ignorance Continues To Unravel,  JustOneMinute blog
As Mark Thompson Starts New Job, the BBC's Implosion Is Felt in New York, Public Editor's Journal, NY Times
Mark Thompson's Office Was Reportedly 'Warned' About Jimmy Saville Child Sex Abuse Allegations, Huffington Post
Mark Thompson Claims Ignorance Of Letter About Jimmy Savile Scandal Sent On His Behalf, Huffington Post

edits - added missing link to earlier post.

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