If Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor at the New York Times, was looking for a way to demonstrate her independence from the newsroom, she couldn’t have come up with anything better than her latest post: In it, she questions whether Mark Thompson — the former director-general of the BBC who is scheduled to become the new CEO of the Times Co. in just a few weeks — is the right person to run the newspaper, given his involvement in a media scandal that occurred while he was at the British public broadcaster. It’s just the latest sign of Sullivan’s willingness to rattle the bars of her gilded cage at the paper, in what is rapidly becoming a master class in how to fulfil the duties of a public editor.
Sullivan, the former editor of the Buffalo News who took over as public editor of the NYT in September, describes in her post how Thompson — who ran the BBC for eight years — has become embroiled in an investigation into child molestation and sexual assault allegations against a former BBC presenter. The BBC apparently had an investigative report underway as part of its Newsnight program that would have looked at these allegations, but it was later shelved. Thompson has said that he had no knowledge of the investigation, or at least that he was “never formally notified.”
This wasn’t enough for the NYT’s public editor, however. In addition to recommending in the headline of her post that the paper “must aggressively cover Mark Thompson’s role in BBC’s troubles,” Sullivan questions whether his defence is believable or not:
“How likely is it that he knew nothing? A director general of a giant media company is something like a newspaper’s publisher. Would a publisher be very likely to know if an investigation of one of its own people on sexual abuse charges had been killed?”
Sullivan is right to raise the questions she does
Although the public editor doesn’t come to her own conclusion on that question — saying it can be complicated by the so-called “Chinese wall” between editorial and the business side of a news entity — she seems to suggest that he likely would have in this case, because of the severity of the case. And she goes on to say that it’s worth asking whether the New York Times even wants the former BBC executive to become its new CEO, given the questions raised about his involvement:
“How likely is it that the Times Company will continue with its plan to bring Mr. Thompson on as chief executive? His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly. It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.”
Sullivan also recommends that the newspaper should start by “publishing an in-depth interview with Mr. Thompson exploring what exactly he knew,” and that this interview should also look into what the effects of the scandal might be on his job and duties at the New York Times. As the public editor notes in her post, this is exactly the kind of investigation the BBC didn’t do into its own behavior, and the result is what appears to be a major scandal for the broadcaster.
I wrote recently about the public editor position, and suggested that the New York Times should have more than just one — in effect, that all of its senior editors should function as “public editors,” by interacting with readers through the comments and social media about the stories that they are involved in, defending their choices and so on, instead of relying on Sullivan to do so.
This was taken by some as a sign that I disapprove of the idea of having a position like Sullivan’s, but that’s not really the case. I think there is a purpose to the job, and a benefit to having a single person whose entire job consists of holding the paper’s feet to the fire — and the former Buffalo News editor seems to be doing a bang-up job so far. She deserves kudos for taking her job seriously, and the NYT would be wise to pay attention to her recommendations.