By Lisa O'Carroll, The Guardian

Joe Nocera asks why ex-BBC director general did not order inquiry after learning of Newsnight programme on presenter. By Lisa O'Carroll

Mark Thompson, the former BBC director general, has been accused of "appearing wilfully ignorant" about the Jimmy Savile scandal by a New York Times columnist, just weeks before he takes over as chief executive of the paper.

Joe Nocera pulled no punches in his piece on the incoming boss on Tuesday, headlined The Right Man for the Job?, which questioned whether the family that controls the paper, the Sulzbergers, had made the right choice in appointing Thompson.

In analysing the BBC's decision to drop a Newsnight investigation into Savile's alleged abuse, Nocera asked whether there was a cover-up. "Plainly, the answer is yes. What is far less certain is how high the cover-up went," he said.

He noted that Thompson, who was still director general when Newsnight's Savile report was dropped in late 2011, had not asked for details about the content of the investigation when he was told about it last year.

"Given the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations – look at what it did to Penn State – you would think that Thompson and his underlings would immediately want to get to the bottom of it," Nocera said.

"But, again, they did nothing. Thompson winds up appearing wilfully ignorant, and it makes you wonder what kind of an organisation the BBC was when Thompson was running it – and what kind of leader he was. It also makes you wonder what kind of chief executive he'd be at the Times."

Nocera is a highly respected journalist with a background in business. Before joining the New York Times in 2005, he spent 10 years at Fortune magazine, where he held a variety of positions, including contributing writer, editor-at-large and executive editor. His last position at Fortune was editorial director.

Thompson is due to start his new job as chief executive of the New York Times Company on 12 November, but has already been in the building getting to know staff and his name is already on his office door, according to Nocera.

Nocera also questioned why Thompson did not act in February 2012, when several British newspapers reported that the Newsnight investigation had been shelved, with claims that this was to protect the BBC's reputation.

"[New York Times Company chairman] Arthur Sulzberger is in a difficult spot. He believes strongly that he's got the executive he needs to lead the Times to the promised land of healthy profits again," Nocera said in conclusion.

"Although he declined to be interviewed for this column, he appears to have accepted Thompson's insistence that he knew nothing about the explosive allegations that became public literally 50 days after he accepted the Times job. Sulzberger is backing his man unreservedly.

"For the sake of Times employees – not to mention the readers who want to see a vibrant New York Times Company – let's hope his faith in Thompson is warranted. Otherwise, the BBC won't be the only organisation being asked tough questions about its judgment."

Nocera is the second writer at the New York Times to question whether Thompson is fit to be the paper's new boss in the wake of the Savile scandal.

Last week, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor who works on behalf of readers and writes about the newspaper, said in a blog posting: "[Thompson's] 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."

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