[Note: This guest blog entry is written by Bill Bauman. For many years Bauman was the GM of WESH, Hearst Television’s NBC affiliate serving Orlando, Fla. He retired five years ago. Bauman’s last guest commentary for us was "What NBC Can Learn From the BBC — and Vice Versa — About Televising the Olympics. Observations From the Former GM of an NBC Affiliate"]
By Bill Bauman
Do you remember the greatest line from the Watergate hearings? What did the president know, and when did he know it?
That’s Mark Thompson’s problem right now. Thompson was a hugely successful director general of the BBC, and is now about to become the new CEO of The New York Times — arguably the two best news organizations in the world. He crossed the Atlantic from the best job in the world to the next best job in the world on the strength of his breakthrough work in the digital world. The next time you are in the U.K., check out the BBC I-Player. It is the future, and Thompson gets the credit. Which is one major reason he is now at The NY Times — where he is scheduled to start on Nov. 12, 2012.
But a dead comedian is now haunting both Thompson and the BBC, and maybe The Times. Jimmy Savile was a disc jockey and TV personality on the BBC for three decades. He got big ratings and was a huge star. He was also a child molester. So far, 300 victims, the vast majority being young girls, have been identified.
In a nutshell, here’s the scandal: Jimmy died last year at the age of 84. The BBC prepared two tribute shows honoring the great television produced by Jimmy Savile. Meanwhile, ITV (the BBC’s biggest competitor) was producing a hard-hitting news report on Savile’s pedophilia.
As it turns out, the BBC also had a piece in production on Savile’s sexual predilections for its signature public affairs show, “Newsnight.” But that piece was inexplicably killed. Killed, the editor says, because it failed to meet the BBC’s journalistic standards. At the about the same time the BBC was broadcasting its two tribute shows to Jimmy Savile. Everyone involved says killing the story had nothing to do with the fact that the entertainment division was broadcasting these tribute shows.
Which brings us back to Mark Thompson, the director general at the time of the BBC. Director general is a unique job description. It means chief executive officer and editor in chief. So you are running both the entertainment division and the news division.
How could the BBC broadcast two tributes to Jimmy Savile while the competition was exposing him as a child molester? Why did the BBC kill its own investigation into Savile’s pedophilia? So far, Mark Thompson has said:
1. I wasn’t in charge when Savile was molesting children.
2. I was unaware that we were producing tribute shows after his death.
3. I didn’t know our news division was producing a story about his pedophilia.
4. I had nothing to do with killing our “Newsnight” story
Those responses beg these questions about Thompson:
1. Did you not meet regularly with your programmers to discuss the entertainment shows the BBC was planning to broadcast?
2. Did you not know your news division was working on an expose (a horrific one by the way) about one of your stars for the past 30 years? They really didn’t tell you?
3. Given the sensitive nature of all of this, would not the producer, reporters, managing editors and everyone else involved in this story not come to consult with you when the decision was made to kill this piece?
4. Boy, this just all seems too coincidental. (Not a question)
The BBC and The New York Times are two of the most respected news organizations in the world. But as we say down south, Mark Thompson has some more explaining to do. What’s at stake here is the public’s perception of your honesty and journalistic ethics. Not small issues if you are the BBC or The New York Times.