If you’ve read my first blog on a Savile timeline you may remember that I first got the idea after noticing one interesting fact in the Sunday Times a few weeks back and looking further into it.
Well I’ve done the same thing after reading a story which appeared in the Sunday Times last weekend but surprisingly doesn’t seem to have been followed up anywhere. This despite the fact that it appears to raise important issues. The story was headlined ‘Lawyer’s letter puts dent in Thompson’s Savile denial’. The Thompson in question is Mark Thompson, former Director-General of the BBC and now Chief Executive of the New York Times. Perhaps readers thought it was the latest battle in the long running saga between the Murdochs and News Corp on the one hand and Thompson and the BBC on the other. As I am not affiliated with either side I tried to look at the merits of the article by freelance reporter Miles Goslett who has been working on the Savile story for nearly a year. His contacts with the BBC Press Office on the Savile story go back to December of last year when among other allegations he put to them a claim that Savile abused minors on BBC premises in the 1970s.
Here’s my new take on The Sunday Times story on Thompson in one paragraph:
Mark Thompson, who has denied ever knowing while he was DG of any allegation of Savile abusing women on BBC premises, authorised solicitors to threaten legal action after receiving an email from the Sunday Times making that specific allegation. And all this happened while he was still DG.
Now the detail:
Mark Thompson wrote to Rob Wilson MP on 23rd October this year (after he had left the BBC) and his letter included this paragraph:
Given the many hundreds of investigations the BBC does every year, the personal involvement of the DG in a given investigation would inevitably be unusual and noteworthy and could therefore have a distorting or chilling effect on the journalism involved. Particular care not to directly involve the DG is taken when investigations may involve the BBC itself, to avoid the risk of a conflict of interest or the perception of one. It is worth noting, however, that I did not know at the time or for the remainder of my period in office whether the Newsnight Savile investigation included allegations related to the BBC and whether it therefore fell into this category, or not.
That final sentence is the crucial one.
Going back to the time when Mark Thompson was still DG, at the end of August the Sunday Times emailed the BBC press team inviting replies to a number of allegations about Savile and the BBC. One allegation specifically mentioned alleged assaults on BBC premises. There were also questions about the role, if any, of Helen Boaden and Mark Thompson in the decision to drop the Newsnight investigation
The BBC press team responded by strenuously denying any allegations against Thompson and Boaden.
On 6th September, again while Thompson was still DG, a firm of solicitors called Mills and Reeve sent the Sunday Times a formal letter saying they were acting for Thompson and Boaden .The solicitors denied all the allegations about the handling of the Newsnight item and threatened legal action if they were printed. They did not refer to the allegation about alleged assaults by Savile on BBC premises.
The Sunday Times did not run the story in any form.
So what are the implications of this correspondence?
For Mark Thompson’s later statement to Rob Wilson MP to be true – that at no time as DG did he know of any allegation of Savile ‘related to the BBC’ – he must not have understood the email from the Sunday Times before authorising solicitors to threaten to sue them if they published.
In the Sunday Times article this past weekend, Miles Goslett quoted a source close to Thompson as saying he was on holiday in America when the Sunday Times submitted their questions and that on his return to Britain he gave verbal approval for the letter to be sent.
Goslett said the source told the Sunday Times that Thompson was only made aware by the BBC of the sections of the letter that related to Newsnight and not to those relating to sexual abuse by Savile.
But I am as certain as I can be that Mills and Reeve specifically refer to ‘BBC premises’ in their letter on behalf of Thompson and Boaden.
How could the solicitors have denied the allegations about events on BBC premises on behalf of Thompson if he had not understood them?
The bottom line would appear to be that the man who now runs one of the world’s great newspapers did , earlier this year in his BBC role, put his name to a threat of legal action against one of the world’s other great newspapers after they put to him an allegation about Savile’s behaviour at the BBC that now seems to be accepted as fact.
I emailed a draft of this blogpost to Mark Thompson at the New York Times, to Helen Boaden and the BBC Press Office and to Mills and Reeve.
Mark Thompson e-mailed back that he was at full stretch on Day Three of his new job so would I speak to an executive at the London office of an international public relations company , because ‘he can brief you on my perspective on this bit of the saga’. I was then emailed by that executive. Knowing that a ‘source close to Mark Thompson’ had already spoken to the Sunday Times and that I had quoted that source in this blog, I emailed back that I did not need a briefing, I needed a statement from Mark.He then emailed that the Sunday Times had only used some of what he had said to them and that I would therefore only have a partial view based on one press article. I invited him to solve that problem by providing me with a statement
UPDATE; Later that evening he gave me this statement:
‘Mark will not be making any statement on this issue other than to reinforce what was said to the Sunday Times, namely that he verbally agreed to the tactic of sending a legal letter to the paper, but was not involved in its drafting, nor was he aware of the detail beyond the central and false allegation put to the BBC that he had influenced the decision to abandon Newsnight’s investigation into Jimmy Savile. Such legal letters are a common occurrence at the BBC and Mark would invariably follow the advice of the legal and press teams. As Mark has repeatedly made clear, he was not aware of the allegations against Jimmy Savile until the pre-publicity ahead of the ITV documentary’.
A BBC spokesman said:'”It would be inappropriate to comment on matters that relate to legal advice.”
Helen Boaden has not responded to my emails to her inviting her to respond with a statement.
Mills and Reeve told me:'”We are unable to comment on any matters relating to legal advice we have provided.”
I have spoken to Rob Wilson, the M.P to whom Thompson sent the letter with the ‘I did not know’ line. He told me:”Not for the first time since the Savile scandal broke, aspects of Mark Thompson’s management of the BBC look rather strange. Despite writing a lengthy letter to me and making various public statements, he hasn’t yet given a definitive account of his knowledge of the Savile allegations during his time at the BBC’.
“Now it appears legal threats were issued using his name against a newspaper over claims that he hadn’t bothered to read, let alone investigate, but which turned out to be true.”
What’s interesting in the statement you obtained from Mark is this:
“Such legal letters are a common occurrence at the BBC and Mark would invariably follow the advice of the legal and press teams.”
Does this therefore mean that BBC ratepayers are paying for Mark Thompson to defend his reputation – against allegations he is not fully aware of?
Keep going Stewart
Pingback: Mark Thompson, the legal letter, and the Savile investigation | Media law and ethics
Stewart, do you have a copy of the Sunday Times’ original questions that they put to Thompson at the end of August? Many thanks. Thanks for this excellent series of posts … watching developments with interest.