The MT Interview: The BBC's Mark Thompson

With the BBC under threat of break-up, is the broadcaster's current director-general the man to save it?

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Big and bristly, Mark Thompson strides into the Radio 1 boardoom and grins sheepishly. He's been downstairs in the studios having his picture taken, and he seems relieved to be at the wordy bit of the interview. He's wearing a suit that doesn't hang like a fashion buy, he's got sweat rings under his shirtsleeves, and he's sporting a ginger beard shorn to the same length as his balding hair. In short, he looks a bit of a rumpled mess.

Then he starts talking, and you realise there's nothing haphazard in the cortex: intellect, charm, good humour and a dose of ambition are all smoothly blended. Thompson, 52, son of a suburban accountant, has been director general of the BBC for five years now, heading the world's greatest public-service broadcaster while generally keeping his own name out of the headlines. Ask most people in Britain who runs the BBC and they wouldn't have a clue - though they'd have an opinion about a lot else at the organisation that is a lynchpin in the country's political, cultural and journalistic life.

And maybe Thompson likes it that way: hunkered down, running his executive team and just occasionally, when a crisis demands, popping up to take some flak with a cautious defence.

One to one, he's a convincing persuader for the BBC's cause. In front of bigger groups, or under camera, he is less so: more hesitant, too careful, stiff in manner. For Thompson's team it is a conundrum, because, right now, the BBC needs as convincing a leader as it can get.

And that's because the corporation faces the threat of being broken up. It's too big, too successful, too influential in a global media arena where rivals have been pole-axed by the recession and new technology. The latest suggestion, taken up by the Conservatives, is that Radio 1 should be the first chunk sold off - though quite how this would affect commercial rivals isn't explained (or where the advertising would come from). Others just want bits closed down.

That makes the venue for our meeting - Radio 1's ramshackle building round the corner from BBC Broadcasting House in London's Portland Place - rather apt. I ask Thompson if he has his own plans to shrink the BBC's empire. After all, would any director general ever trim the corporation voluntarily?

'Well, actually, I think we have done already,' he says, rubbing his chin. 'Five years ago, we had a significant entertainment element in our website which we took down. We recognised that our contribution on the web should be allied to our public purposes. We are trying to focus what we do on the web, so we don't do listings - in fact, we have exited many areas that are the most monetisable and won't go back to them.

'And look at BBC1: we have shifted enormously away from acquired programmes and feature films towards news and current affairs, and original UK drama. We're trying to make our services more distinctive.' And in entertainment, he says, barely drawing breath, the Beeb sticks to making the programmes others wouldn't - whether that be Strictly Come Dancing or Have I Got News For You on TV, or I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue on radio, or ...

He could go on. Others tell it differently and claim that the BBC, under a succession of director generals, has actually pulled money out of key areas to plough investment into its nascent online empire. That looked far-sighted for a time. But the development of the online iPlayer, and the current 'project canvas' - designed to mesh broadband delivery and TV screen - are game-changers for the whole media sector. No-one thought through the implications.

Worse than that, Thompson's handling of the controversies over Jonathan Ross's contract, Russell Brand's sacking, and his own executives' expenses showed a lack of political and PR nous. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw even directly accused Thompson of a 'lack of leadership' earlier this summer. That must have hurt.

'Well,' cuts in Thompson, never losing his smile, 'on the same day that quote was printed he went on Radio 5 Live to say that nothing he said was a personal attack on anyone at the BBC.' Has he spoken to him since? 'Er, no,' he says, with a shrug.

Thompson is phlegmatic about the flak. He is formidably knowledgeable about the Beeb's past - he has spent all his working life at the corporation, bar one year heading Channel 4 - and he knows that the director general is always a target. He also knows that his organisation is unlike any normal business. It has a more complicated mandate, and is tortured by continual scrutiny.

Its employees also hate being told what to do. Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4 and BBC 7 and an old friend of Thompson, says critics always miss this point. 'It's not a conventional corporate hierarchy; there is a degree of resistance you wouldn't see in a FTSE company.' That makes leadership a more subtle skill.

Thompson adds that the DG's job is also more than that of just chief executive. 'The role is CEO and editor-in-chief, and the editor-in-chief bit means something, and is potentially quite a high-wire act. But there is also the reasonably straightforward CEO bit - but with the complication that stakeholders are not just investors and analysts but above all the public and complicated political and industrial interests. So there's a range of relationships and dependencies that are different and quite extensive ...'

He speaks in long, hesitant sentences, spinning off clauses as the thoughts occur, colloquial in tone but forceful in argument. Thompson is also a deeply religious man, schooled by Jesuits, though you might not guess it. But colleagues have witnessed it. One remembers Thompson, many years back, breaking off from a production meeting, saying: 'I have to go to Mass.'

It makes a few uneasy, though Thompson will happily argue its relative unimportance. 'My values and the values that my parents and teachers instilled in me absolutely colour my view of right and wrong and behaviours and practices in the workplace which are positive.

'But I have senior colleagues from utterly different backgrounds, with no belief or different beliefs, who I also recognise as having high values, so I can't claim either a halo or some kind of special effect.'

Friends say his sense of purpose gives him resilience. He took on the top slot with the BBC in crisis, his predecessor Greg Dyke having resigned following criticism of the corporation's news coverage of Iraq. And he 'kept the train on the tracks, moving forward', as one colleague puts it. He also copes better with the pressures of media scrutiny than his predecessors.

'You naturally become an object of satire and ridicule,' says one senior BBC executive, 'and though Greg and his predecessor John Birt pretended to be above it, they weren't. Mark has more of a carapace.'

Now, the BBC's problems are ones of success, not failure, as Thompson seems to have got the organisation performing at the top of its game, producing critically applauded content on television, radio and online, while re-organising itself to be leaner and less London-centric.

In short, he is doing everything he has been asked to do: taking on an institution that was in danger of losing relevance - as younger licence-payers sought out other media - and restoring it to its central role. The flipside is that Thompson may be marching the corporation towards inevitable massacre, because he has underestimated the backlash that success will cause.

The whole media market is in crisis, and the BBC's privileged position - licence-fee funded to the tune of £3.5bn - doesn't win it friends. Newspapers are going out of business because free online coverage from the BBC and others makes it hard for them to charge for their sites. Rival broadcasters dependent on advertising are seeing audiences sliced away by the BBC's ever-growing TV and radio output. Ironically, choice has blossomed just as advertising revenue has shrunk. Hence the latest idea, in Lord Carter's Digital Britain report in June, of using part of the licence fee to fund regional news on ITV.

It's an idea Thompson is vehemently opposed to. Why? Because 'top-slicing' the licence fee is the thin end of the wedge. 'And from the public's point of view, I don't think the case has even been made as to why it's necessary. They already pay for one regional news service; why pay for two?'

He has a point but, for the BBC, it's now looking like a pretty hostile world out there.

'Some people are cross,' nods Thompson. 'Newspapers in particular. All I would say is that American newspapers are in worse trouble than the ones here, so it's not all about us. And if you go onto Google News, you'll see a lot of news sources available for nothing - many paid for by governments or other forms of sovereign wealth. Although a number of newspapers would like to go for a paid model, the idea of being able to stop free news on the internet - even if you abolish the BBC online - is a bit like King Canute.'

But does he feel guilty for the grief the BBC is causing other media? 'I feel, ah, um, well ... it's complicated. If you take broadcasting, the BBC used to be 100% of the money spent on broadcasting in this country. Ten years ago, it was 35%; today, it is 23%, and soon it will fall below 20%. People forget BSkyB has a higher turnover than the whole BBC group, much bigger than the licence fee take. But it is a vast importer of content and buyer of sports rights, and has only limited investment in original content ...'

His point, eventually, is that the BBC shouldn't be blamed for the shortcomings of others. But to understand how he wants to shape it, you have to see its history through his eyes.

'The story of the BBC is of a radio broadcaster founded in 1920s, which experimented with TV before the war, then war comes and cements the relationship with the public. Then by 1950s ITV arrives and is a hit, and there's a sense of an anachronistic BBC on TV. The 1960s sees the BBC under Hugh Carlton Greene betting on the future, what modernism means, colour TV, a new radio line-up with Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, local radio, a more demotic, emotionally engaged service, part of the warp and weft of modern Britain.

'That burst goes on, the organisation has over 30,000 people by the time I join as a graduate trainee. Now the public-service bit of the BBC is more like 18,000. But that big burst of 1960s modernisation is running out of speed by the 1980s, C4 arrives, the independent sector begins, Sky begins, and there is a sense again of the BBC needing a big burst of modernisation.

'And the story of the last 20 years is of us wrestling again with what the BBC of the future looks like, how we can regain a reputation for innovation and technology and programming, and shape a BBC which would remain indispensable in a world where there are more choices than a generation ago, with a stronger, better BBC emerging, with better programmes and access to talent, spread across the UK.'

It's like sitting in a tutorial. That patiently thought-out approach wins plaudits from strategists, but it does not impress everyone. Some employees detect a whiff of Oxbridge elitism about Thompson's style, and miss the populist touch of Dyke. They argue that the BBC has been on the back foot politically since 2004, apologising continually, and that Thompson has failed to mobilise staff behind his purpose. His regime has also ignored the bureaucracy still strangling parts of the corporation.

Add to that the growing gulf in wages that separates lower ranks from senior executives earning 10 times more, plus the lack of resources in certain areas of production, and it's not hard to see why morale is reputed to be low in parts of the corporation. Even Dyke, who is warmly supportive of Thompson, says staff should not be ignored, as they are key ambassadors. 'If I was Mark, I'd have done more internal selling,' he says. 'But, by and large, his strategy is right.'

So, do the top brass earn too much at the BBC? 'Here's the thing,' says Thompson. 'The cheap point to make is that there are 170 people in this organisation who earn over £100,000 a year - that's 1.5% of our workforce. At C4, it's 10% of the workforce. Now I'm not sure they shouldn't have 10% earning that much, as they commission a lot; we have extensive production, and it's quite difficult to benchmark. But equally, I am not sure 1.5% in a hi-tech media organisation where a lot of lower-end jobs were outsourced years ago is all that wrong.'

And his own £834,000 salary? 'I earn less than the No 2 at Channel 4, and less than the No 2 and No 3 at ITV.'

As for the recent press coverage of BBC executive expenses - 'that Bachannalian orgy', as Thompson drily puts it - he shakes his head. 'Even our biggest critics, Kelvin McKenzie and David Elstein, said they looked pretty ordinary. Sometimes, you go through flak that seems real; sometimes, it just feels more ritualistic.

'Look, people try to say: you're in the public sector and the right comparator is a city council. But if we need a head of future media we won't get them from local government. Our head of entertainment went to ITV last year, our head of comedy commission went to Sky this summer; they went to bigger salaries, believe me.'

What about morale - are BBC staff happy? Yes, he says, citing internal surveys. And they are particularly proud and supportive of what the BBC does. 'Mori says the remarks are almost unique, people (here) believe passionately in what we do. And I do think there is a sense across the organisation that the BBC could have an exciting role in digital.'

Not so exciting, perhaps, if you are among the 2,500 staff asked to go to Salford in the BBC's current re-organisation, part of a drive to make more programming in the regions. Less than half have agreed to go. Thompson raises his hands. No surprises, he says, it's what senior managers expected.

Did he ever refuse a job move? A few, he grins. 'I've only ever done things I wanted to do.'

Has he always wanted to get to the top? 'It's one of those funny things,' he says. 'You look back and a lot of things make sense, but I had no plan, no idea I would do this.'

Certainly, he was never that interested in management, though his father was chief accountant for the plastics division of ICI. Thompson was brought up, with a younger sister, outside Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. His mother's family came from Donegal - 'Irish girls who married Englishmen', he says - and carried the immigrants' drive to get established. Thompson went to boarding school at 10 and was the first in his family to go to university. He was expected to take up a proper profession. 'An aunt once said to me, when I was 29 and editor of the Nine O'Clock News: "Y'know, it's not too late, I'll pay for you to go to medical school."'

Those who worked with him back then, as he climbed the ladder through news and production, noted his obvious intellect and pug-dog tenacity, but also his friendliness. Even now, there's a boyish enthusiasm to his chiselling away at problems. 'He'll often come and stand at my desk,' says Caroline Thomson, the BBC's chief operating officer, 'and just hang around, until he finally admits: "I've had this idea ..." And he doesn't over-complicate. He simplifies.'

Thompson is less adept at networking. 'Greg (Dyke) was compulsively sociable,' says another senior executive. Thompson isn't - he prefers to go home to Oxford most evenings. For some, that's a weakness, as the BBC needs a charismatic chief to corral political and public support.

Yet Dyke himself disagrees. He says Thompson is hamstrung by the lack of a supportive chairman now that the board of governors has been replaced by a Trust. 'The BBC Trust chairman doesn't seem to know if he's a regulator or someone representing the interests of the BBC,' says Dyke. 'It makes the relationship between chairman and chief executive very difficult.'

On the plus side, Thompson is far more of a BBC insider than the previous two DGs, with strong senior executive support. His decision to leave the top job at C4 after just a year now seems prescient. Before our meeting, he'd been locked in talks about merging the BBC's commercial arm with C4, to save the independent broadcaster from going under. Does he feel in part responsible for what's happened to C4?

'Well, if you look at the 2002 MacTaggart lecture, you will see I talk about the roots of these problems, that C4 in the long term faced issues around scale and sustainability, and the question of whether the model will support as much non-profitable, public-service content as you would like to make. I have been consistent on that.'

Will a deal between BBC Worldwide and C4 happen? Watch this space, he says. Possibly.

And will he stay at the top in the BBC for much longer? He shrugs. 'Half of all director generals get fired, or at least don't go at a time of their own choosing. I've been doing this for five years, I'm enjoying myself, I don't feel like a punchbag - and I had few illusions about the job when I took it on. My personality is such that once I decide to do something, I do it, and will do it for as long as they want.'

But who are 'they'? The BBC Trust? The Government? The public? He doesn't say.

Some expect him to chase bigger bucks overseas, eventually. His wife, the daughter of a former Master of Balliol College, Oxford, is American. Maybe Hollywood beckons?

'Hollywood? With looks like mine, it can only be a matter of time, but strangely the phone hasn't rung yet. Ha ha ha ...' He sighs. 'Yes, I have an American wife and my children have American passports, and as others look to Mecca, we look to America, but I am fully occupied with this job, and not on the phone to headhunters.'

He knows, however, that in a big organisation like the BBC, there's never a shortage of gossip. I tell him that some colleagues think he almost enjoys the beating the Beeb gets from politicians and media, as a penitent would enjoy flagellation. That religious streak again ...

'Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,' he laughs, shaking his head. 'And you write this stuff down? So let's confess: the point about apologising is that I like to do it as little as possible!'

He's still laughing as he walks me down to the rainy street, and waves a friendly goodbye.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING THOMPSON

1. To persuade politicians and public alike that the BBC's current empire should be maintained without cutbacks, and to show that the licence fee is spent wisely

2. To keep the BBC relevant for a younger audience, and maintain the corporation's commitment to drama, entertainment and current affairs programming

3. To spend more time selling his strategy to the BBC's own employees, and reiterating the benefits of working for the corporation at a time of recession

THOMPSON IN A MINUTE

1957: Born 31 July in London, brought up in Herts. Educated Stonyhurst
College and Merton College, Oxford
1979: Joins BBC graduate trainee scheme
1988: Editor, Nine O'Clock News
1992: Editor, Panorama
1994: Head of factual programmes
1996: Controller BBC2
1999: Director, national and regional broadcasting
2000: Director of television
2002: Joins Channel 4 as chief executive
2004: Rejoins BBC as director general

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