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<nettime> Guardian > Wolff > Savile, Thompson and the NYT


Michael Wolff

The Jimmy Savile scandal, Mark Thompson and the New York Times

   Savile is unknown in the US. The real issue is Arthur Sulzberger Jr's
   judgment in embracing the BBC's former director general

   Among the major institutions in the world most inclined to
   self-scrutiny and self-criticism are the BBC and the New York
   Times. This is not to say that they are transparent or self-aware, but,
   rather, achingly self-conscious, consumed by the scrutiny of others.

   The fact that the former head of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is shortly
   to become the CEO of the New York Times (the Times uses the
   modifier "incoming", just in case he never gets there), creates a sort
   of double whammy.

   Thompson was lucky enough to get out of town (that is, London) before
   the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal became an opportunity for the
   BBC to flagellate itself - in part, for not flagellating itself when it
   cancelled a documentary expose about Savile - and for its myriad
   enemies to join in. But Thompson was unlucky to have escaped to an
   organization that, while entirely remote from the Jimmy Savile story,
   now had to make it big news by emphasizing and exaggerating its own
   role in the scandal (that is, for hiring Thompson) - lest it incur even
   larger opprobrium for seeming to minimize its role.

   This is a column about context, so let's set it. Nobody in the US knows
   who Jimmy Savile is. Even when a Brit explains, nobody in America gets
   it. Part Captain Kangaroo, part Pee Wee Herman, part Dick Clark? But
   not really. What's more, nobody in America really understands what the
   BBC is, at least not in the sense that it pervades British life and has
   as much to do with national identity as it does with news and

   And then, there is the nature of sex scandals themselves. They are,
   almost always, culturally specific: Jerry Sandusky and Penn State was a
   minor story in the UK (American football doesn't translate in Britain);
   likewise, Jimmy Savile would have been, save for Mark Thompson and the
   New York Times, a footnote here (the BBC doesn't translate in the US).

   Still, both nations have progressed to seeing sexual abuse as an
   absolute evil; any rationalization, or effort to specify context, seems
   to add to the evil.

   Before, gingerly, trying to address the social context, let me stay
   with the institutional context.

   Both the BBC and the New York Times are each in one of the most
   difficult periods of their histories. The logic of the BBC's massive
   public subsidy in an age of ever-expanding media choice, is under fire.
   The Times' bleak financial straits are existential as all newspapers
   dwindle, and, as well, a cause for harsh recriminations as to the
   various decisions that might have deepened the company's predicament
   and hastened its fate.

   One of the ways the BBC has responded to increased public scrutiny and
   political pressure (and, as well, ramped up criticism and attention
   from its media competitors), is to become ever more cautious,
   self-questioning, and self-protective. (Some people date this to
   Crowngate, when the BBC aired footage of the Queen storming out of
   a photo session seemingly in a great huff, when she was, in fact,
   entering in a good humor, resulting at the Beeb in groveling apologies
   and high-placed resignations.)

   Almost any remotely controversial subject before the BBC is now
   second-guessed. Nobody wants to put a foot wrong. Or, at least, nobody
   wearing a bureaucratic hat wants to put a foot wrong. This creates, of
   course, a tension with the non-bureaucrats or program-makers, eager to
   pursue compelling material and subjects. Hence, there exists a
   greater-than-usual cold war between the administrative side and the
   content side - a simmering war that has connected itself to the
   canceling of the Savile documentary, and to the weird, operatic,
   tabloid tale of Savile himself, reaching deep into British pop, class,
   and sexual culture.

   At the New York Times, as its future becomes more fraught, a greater
   and greater chasm has opened up between management and other parts of
   the institution (journalists, shareholders, family, greater media
   community). Its purpose and identity seem ever more under siege. A
   crisis mentality grows.

   If the Times dies or is diminished, the feeling among a certain circle
   seems to be that journalism will sink with it. Therefore, the people
   who might damage the Times damage journalism and, hence, civic welfare.
   Indeed, the Thompson controversy has largely been sparked by the Times'
   own public editor (an outside critic to whom the Times gives
   editorial space and a salary to air his or her disgruntlement).
   Margaret Sullivan turned Thompson's hiring from a management issue
   (what exactly is his job?), to a journalism question (what did Thompson
   know and when about the Savile scandal?), and to a broad challenge to
   the company's moral leadership.

   Thompson was hired by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, whose
   family controls the company. Sulzberger's appointment of a man without
   newspaper experience or experience in the American media market as CEO,
   has been, to all, confounding. (Or transparent: Sulzberger long ago
   became the true operational CEO, and surely does not want his de facto
   role to be challenged by someone with the actual job.) Clearly, one
   obvious outcome of linking Thompson to Savile is to embarrass
   Sulzberger - the man who seems most responsible for the Times'
   general extremis status.

   Unfortunately for Sulzberger, he has, throughout his tenure as
   publisher, been temperamentally incapable of getting the tone right
   when it comes to addressing or parsing the emotional issues that relate
   to the Times' future and identity and his own decision-making skills.
   He defends rather than explains. He's hysterical rather than judicious.
   He mixes up the personal with the institutional. Sulzberger has
   already defended his incoming CEO in the kneejerk way that he has
   approached problems before.

   One result of his reflexive defensiveness, is that he often seems to
   lash himself to sinking ships (see his stout defense, and ultimate
   abandonment, of Howell Raines and Judy Miller). Now, somehow, beyond
   all sense and logic, he's gotten himself on Jimmy Savile's boat.

   And it's worse than that. Because we don't know who Jimmy Savile is or
   why he ever came to exist, we've equated him with our own most
   notorious sex abuser, Jerry Sandusky.

   Late last week, I was having a gossipy lunch in New York with a retired
   media grandee and the subject quickly and eagerly turned to Thompson,
   Sulzberger, and Savile.

   "Of course," said the media grandee, "Thompson would have known. You
   always know." Alleging, I suppose, that Thompson was Penn State's Joe
   Paterno in this analogy, turning a blind eye as one of his employees
   used his position to sexually abuse minors. And that seemed a plausible
   assumption to me.

   Then, not a half hour later, I ran into Michael Jackson, the former CEO
   of the UK's Channel Four broadcasting company, who may know more about
   British television than anybody else living in America. Continuing the
   discussion, Jackson first corrected my pronunciation of Savile, and
   then, when I repeated the Penn State comparison, pointed out that
   Savile had long been retired by the time Thompson became the director
   general of the BBC.

   Sure, sure ... details. But what about the cancelled Newsnight show?

   Even if you can absolve Thompson of the overriding issue of who knew
   what, when, about the minors Savile is said to have abused, how could
   the BBC's director general not have known about the decision to kill
   the investigative report that would have exposed Savile?

   Thompson admits to knowing something - after he denied knowing
   anything. He went to a cocktail party and someone asked whether he
   was worried about the Newsnight Savile investigation. And what did he

   Here's the only decent and safe response (at least, at this point in
   hindsight): "That's a great story and we've got to have it. Pursue the
   truth wherever it goes." Any other response would seem to be saying:
   "Don't you dare mess with our Jimmy." The truth is probably something
   else: I'm not really listening to this. I hate all the complainers who
   work here. Sounds like someone else's problem. Who cares about Jimmy
   Savile? Jimmy Savile - gross!

   Over the weekend, another reporter - characterized, in most accounts,
   as a "freelance" reporter - claimed he had logged a call to Thompson's
   office and left a message inquiring about Savile and charges that he
   abused girls while at the BBC. This made front-page news not only in
   London, but also in the New York Times. The fact that a random
   phone call from a random reporter to an executive office, which would
   invariably deflect phone calls from random reporters, now seems to be
   part of the evidential chain is more proof that life inside the scandal
   hot-house has diverged from everyday life.

   Of course, the problem is compounded - the problem is always compounded
   - by the fact that just as the BBC was getting ready to expose Jimmy
   Savile, it was also getting ready to celebrate him with a special
   Christmas Day encomium. This certainly does seem, in its baldness, less
   conspiratorial and more like two hands unaware of each other: why would
   you go out of your way to praise such a potential liability?

   But celebrating him and damning him also seems consistent with the two
   sides of Jimmy Savile. It is not just that managers of the BBC may have
   turned a blind eye to and effectively colluded in protecting Jimmy
   Savile, but that everybody in the country knew about him. Or should
   have known. Just look at Jimmy Savile on You Tube. Your jaw is sure to

   Indeed, Jimmy Savile and his reputation as a sexual masher of under-age
   girls turns out to have been, for at least a generation, a reliable pop
   culture riff - one guaranteeing a certain laugh. Everybody knew.

   And yet, somehow, for whatever weird, self-loathing, Dickensian, kinky
   British reasons, Jimmy Savile had become an eccentric, but apparently
   proud, British institution. Not to mention a face of the BBC. He was a
   cultural norm, rather than an aberration.

   It is a not insignificant context point that a parallel showbusiness
   world of outré behavior and coddled perviness has long existed. To the
   extent that this has been one of our fascinations with that world,
   someone has to live our fantasies. A quick email to a former BBC
   personality of my acquaintance gets me a robust list of celebrity pervs
   in Britain. I could compile one for US pervs.

   Now, perhaps, the page is turning and our tolerance has come to an end.
   Or perhaps Jimmy Savile was just more extreme, though that seems like a
   difficult line to draw.

   Perhaps I cannot fully interpret what the Brits really mean when they
   invoke Jimmy Savile, beyond guilt and darkness, and when they display a
   striking tolerance of weird uncles at holiday gatherings, and an
   ambivalence about the BBC. But I do know that when certain New Yorkers
   say "Jimmy Savile", they merely mean that the New York Times is a
   bumbling and directionless and vulnerable organization.

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies

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