Former BBC chief explains dropped Savile investigation

Former BBC Director General Mark Thompson provided conflicting statements on what he knew about the abuse allegations.

Story highlights

  • Mark Thompson was director general of the BBC until earlier this year
  • His conflicting statements about the Savile scandal raised questions
  • He explains in a letter what he knew and when

The former director general of the BBC, in a letter to a British lawmaker, tried to explain what he knew about a journalistic investigation into claims of abuse by Jimmy Savile, a late children's TV presenter.

A slew of sexual abuse allegations against Savile, a BBC star and household name in Britain, have emerged over the past month. A second scandal broke with the news that the BBC show "Newsnight" had been investigating similar allegations but dropped the case in late 2011.

This week, Mark Thompson, who was director general of the BBC at the time of the "Newsnight" investigation, provided apparently conflicting statements on what he knew about the allegations and when.

How celebrity child sex scandal has rocked the BBC

"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," Thompson said in a statement Monday. "During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile."

On Tuesday, an account published in the New York Times quoted Thompson as saying that a BBC reporter told him about the investigation at a party in December.

Thompson is now the incoming chief executive at the Times.

Questioned by British MP Rob Wilson, Thompson offered an explanation in a letter that attempted to reconcile his two statements.

NY Times' connection to BBC scandal
NY Times' connection to BBC scandal

    JUST WATCHED

    NY Times' connection to BBC scandal

MUST WATCH

NY Times' connection to BBC scandal 05:32
PLAY VIDEO

He explained that he learned of the investigation but not its details and was satisfied when he inquired to his senior management and was told that it had been dropped for journalistic reasons.

TV icon sex abuse scandal rocks BBC
TV icon sex abuse scandal rocks BBC

    JUST WATCHED

    TV icon sex abuse scandal rocks BBC

MUST WATCH

TV icon sex abuse scandal rocks BBC 02:40
PLAY VIDEO

"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," Thompson wrote in the letter, dated Tuesday.

BBC in hot seat over Savile scandal
BBC in hot seat over Savile scandal

    JUST WATCHED

    BBC in hot seat over Savile scandal

MUST WATCH

BBC in hot seat over Savile scandal 04:08
PLAY VIDEO

Late BBC TV presenter accused of sex abuse

Jimmy Savile's 9-year-old Scout victim
Jimmy Savile's 9-year-old Scout victim

    JUST WATCHED

    Jimmy Savile's 9-year-old Scout victim

MUST WATCH

Jimmy Savile's 9-year-old Scout victim 03:29
PLAY VIDEO

When he learned of "Newsnight's" investigation and was told it was dropped, he did not question it, because such decisions are common, he said.

He added that he finds the bevy of sexual abuse allegations against Savile "exceptionally grave."

"I have been appalled by what I have read and heard in recent weeks and can only imagine the sufferings that these crimes have caused to the victims," he wrote.

Probe into TV star's abuse
Probe into TV star's abuse

    JUST WATCHED

    Probe into TV star's abuse

MUST WATCH

Probe into TV star's abuse 02:51
PLAY VIDEO

The public editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, wrote that the scandal is enough for the company to think about the baggage he is bringing to New York.

"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," she wrote Wednesday.

The scandal has gripped the UK media, with many questioning who knew what and when about the alleged abuse of young teenage girls, and it threatens lasting damage to the reputation of the UK's public broadcaster. Savile died in October last year at the age of 84.

London's Metropolitan Police last week launched a criminal investigation into claims of child sexual abuse by "Savile and others," many of which date back to the 1960s and '70s. The force said that more than 200 potential victims had been identified.

The BBC said Monday that the editor of "Newsnight" was "stepping aside" over questions about why his show never broadcast its investigation into Savile.

The furor has shocked a generation in Britain who grew up watching Savile, one of the most recognizable figures in British showbiz from the 1960s to the 1980s, or listening to his radio shows.

He was the first host of the BBC's hugely popular "Top of the Pops" music show, and his own program, "Jim'll Fix It," ran for almost 20 years. Thousands of children wrote in every week with special requests for him to "fix," or make happen.

The controversy has prompted a wider examination of an apparent culture of sexism at the BBC in past decades that may have fed into abusive behavior.

The allegations against the famous Savile are a reminder of how little the public really knows about celebrities, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"It's another one of these instances that shows us whenever there's someplace we think we won't see scandal, eventually, we end up seeing it," he said.

The scandal brings the venerable BBC into question and feeds the state of cynicism that the public feels for media institutions, he said.

"The whole thing is highly disturbing," he said.