Mark Thompson is not the luckiest of media chief executives. The incoming boss of the New York Times Company must not only deal with a financial squeeze and an escalating staff dispute, he has also been forced to watch out for an extraordinary storm in his rear-view mirror.
The BBC, where Thompson was director general until last month, is in the middle of a growing scandal involving a television host who was once one of its highest-profile stars. But this tangle is not over a badly turned phrase or some other on-air mishap – it is about accusations that, for decades, Britain's national broadcaster turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of young children perpetrated on its premises.
Rumours had followed Sir Jimmy Savile for much of his career as a DJ on BBC Radio 1, as a presenter on the top-40 countdown show Top of the Pops and as the host of Jim'll Fix It, a weekly prime-time television show in which he used his celebrity status to make the wishes of countless young viewers come true. He was even asked about the rumours in at least two interviews in the later part of his life. But when Savile died, aged 84, in October 2011, the British media – including the BBC – gave him the full adulatory treatment.
No fewer than three BBC retrospectives were ordered, recalling the $60million that Savile had raised for charity, the countless poor and sick children whose dreams he had fulfilled and the young pop musicians whose careers he had helped to initiate. Three tributes were scheduled to be broadcast at Christmas. They would remind millions of British viewers of the Jimmy Savile they knew: that cheeky chappie who chewed on a fat cigar, dressed in downmarket shell suits and drove a Rolls Royce.
But over at Newsnight, the BBC's flagship news review programme, a very different kind of retrospective was being prepared. This film would explore the Jimmy Savile who, according to rumour, had abused his celebrity status to prey on young girls, hiding under his philanthropic cloak to commit acts of terrible depravity.
It seems Newsnight did an impressive job, having persuaded 10 victims and witnesses to come forward.
One of the victims has told how Savile would regularly visit her school for disturbed girls in southern England, bearing cigarettes, sweets and perfume.
"Girls just flocked round him," she said later. "He lavished gifts on everybody and was all jolly. And then he wanted people to come for a ride with him in his car."
She and other girls from the school, lured by the chance to watch Savile film his shows, were taken to London, where she said he assaulted them in his dressing room.
But a month into the investigation, the Newsnight team was told by programme editor Peter Rippon that such excoriating allegations about such a well-loved entertainer could only be broadcast if a police investigation could be cited. The Newsnight reporters met this challenge by uncovering a police inquiry into Savile in 2007 in which the star had been questioned under caution.
Then Rippon told the team to find out why the police had dropped their 2007 investigation. But prosecutors would only cite a lack of evidence. Rippon said the Newsnight report should therefore be dropped.
The decision to shelve the Newsnight investigation has had fateful consequences for the BBC, which is now engulfed in its most serious public relations and legal crisis for many years.
Earlier this month, rival network ITV1 broadcast a documentary called Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. The film, which featured victims who would have made an appearance in the Newsnight film had it gone ahead, alleged that BBC producers had been aware of the star's predatory behaviour, stretching back to the mid-1960s.
The timing of the scandal could not be more inconvenient for Thompson, who begins in his new job at the New York Times Company next month.
Thompson has said that he had nothing to do with the cancelling of the Newsnight programme. "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," he told the New York Times.
Since the ITV1 film was broadcast, the scandal has grown exponentially with new horror stories every day. Scotland Yard is co-ordinating inquiries by 12 police forces around the United Kingdom and following 340 separate lines of inquiry relating to claims of abuse by at least 25 victims, all of whom were under 16 and some as young as 13.
The claims date from the late 1950s through to the early 1980s. The huge attention that has been paid to the revelations has brought an entire era of British culture back into the public consciousness.
"It's like a piece of repressed ancient history has come bubbling to the surface – an entire world suddenly coming back and being put under the contemporary spotlight," said Michael Jackson, a former controller of the BBC's main channels. – © Guardian News & Media 2012