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The New York Times' Murdoch Moment

Mark Thompson

Photograph by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Mark Thompson

Why is Mark Thompson increasingly reminding us of James Murdoch?

Not long ago, Thompson and Murdoch were rivals of sorts. Murdoch was the head of News International in London. Thompson was the head of the BBC. Sometimes they took turns criticizing each other’s media operations in public.

Then scandals hit both organizations. And in the aftermath, as they have both repeatedly explained how the problems might have occurred on their watch without them knowing, as they have tried to distance themselves from widening probes and allegations of corporate cover-ups, and as they left London for new jobs in New York, the two rivals have started to sound a lot alike.

Recall Murdoch’s situation first.

In the summer of 2011, revelations of widespread phone hacking at News International triggered a huge wave of public outrage in the U.K., a range of public investigations, and allegations of a company cover-up on Murdoch’s watch.

In the immediate aftermath of the revelations, Murdoch said repeatedly that he was not part of any alleged cover-up; that for a long time he had been led to believe the phone hacking had been limited to a single “rogue” reporter; and that he had never been made aware of any allegations of widespread phone hacking taking place at News International until after the whole thing had erupted in public.

But then a correspondence involving lawyers for Murdoch surfaced, raising questions about those claims.

In the e-mail chain, an editor for one of News International’s papers updated Murdoch on a union official who was suing the company, noting that the situation “is as bad as we feared.” He also forwarded Murdoch two e-mails from company lawyers, one of which explained that the union official was eager to show that phone hacking was “rife” at News International and not limited to a single “rogue” reporter. The e-mail was sent to Murdoch well before the scandal erupted publicly—which seemed to cast serious doubt on his claims that he had been kept in the dark about the possibility of a broader problem.

But even after the e-mail surfaced, Murdoch stood firm.

He explained that when he had originally received the correspondence, he had just returned from overseas, was in the company of his young children, and so he might not have read to the bottom of the e-mail chain. Thus, he had apparently failed to absorb its meaning.

This past week, Thompson offered up a story reminiscent of Murdoch’s.

In October, allegations that the late Jimmy Savile, the former BBC star, had used his position to sexually abuse a large number of minors over the years triggered a huge wave of public outrage in the U.K., touched off multiple investigations, and raised allegations that a company cover-up had taken place on Thompson’s watch.

Like Murdoch, Thompson has denied that he was part of a cover-up. He explained that he had never been made aware of any allegations of sexual abuse until after the whole thing erupted in public.

“During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile,” Thompson  told the New York Times in mid-October.

Then a correspondence involving lawyers for Thompson emerged, casting doubt on those claims.

The Times reported that 10 days before Thompson left the BBC in September 2012, lawyers representing him threatened in a letter to sue a newspaper in London that was preparing to publish an article suggesting, among other things, that Thompson had been involved in killing a BBC news investigation into Savile. “Interviews show that the letter included a summary of the alleged abuse, including the allegation that some abuse might have occurred at the BBC,” reported the Times.

Even after the Times broke the news of the letter’s content, however, Thompson stood firm.

An aide to Thompson explained to the Times that while Thompson had “orally authorized the sending of the letter” he might not have read its content—in part, because he had recently been traveling on vacation. In any case, he had apparently failed to absorb its meaning.

In February, Murdoch stepped down as the head of News International and relocated to New York for a job overseeing News Corp.’s (NWSA) international TV businesses. The ongoing investigations into wrongdoing at News International have raised questions about the future of his leadership role at the company. “I look forward to expanding my commitment to News Corporation’s international television businesses and other key initiatives across the Company,” said Murdoch at the time of his announced relocation to New York.

Recently, Thompson relocated to New York to become the new chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. (NYT). The ongoing investigations into wrongdoing at the BBC have raised questions about the future of his leadership role at the company. Last week, on his first day at work, camera crews greeted him outside his new office. A reporter asked if the crisis at the BBC would impact his role at the Times.  ”No,” said Thompson. “I believe that it will not in any way affect my new job, which I’m starting right now.”

Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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