Last updated: April 7, 2012 12:10 am

Mark Thompson

The outgoing BBC director-general on legacy, vulgarity and how he won the ‘culture wars’
Mark Thompson©Richard Nicholson

Waiting for Mark Thompson in the reception area of Broadcasting House, I am seized by the sudden conviction that I am incorrectly dressed. On the few occasions that I have met the director-general of the BBC, his manner has struck me as rather “new media” – he has a beard, an informal manner and an accent that is probably not posh enough to qualify him for a job as a BBC newsreader. So I have dressed down and am not wearing a tie. But, on further reflection, it strikes me that I am meeting a senior member of the British establishment at head office. Rummaging in my briefcase, I retrieve an old tie. I have just finished knotting it, when the DG appears – accompanied by his head of communications. Thompson is definitely wearing a tie; a rather garish one, in fact.

These sartorial questions are trivial. On the other hand, the director-general of the BBC is one of the central figures in British cultural life. How he looks and sounds tells you something about how the culture is evolving. The bare facts of Thompson’s CV suggest that he is a DG cut from very traditional cloth. He was educated at a private boarding school (Stonyhurst), read English at Merton College, Oxford, and then became a BBC trainee, rising up through the news and current affairs departments. His whole career has been spent at the BBC, apart from two years running Channel 4 – his last job before he took over as director-general. It is a classic route to the top. But rather like Tony Blair – another privately educated, Catholic, Oxford graduate – Thompson has shed the stiffness and faint pomposity of the old British establishment. He is a man of his times.

He is also a survivor. Over the course of the next year, his successor will be appointed and Thompson will leave the BBC. Hunched over a Styrofoam cup of tea, in a small wood-panelled office, the DG remarks thoughtfully – “I’m coming up to eight years in the job and if I survive until after the Olympics, it will definitely be a BBC record in the modern era … Of the last four director-generals, I would say two were definitely fired”. He laughs, slightly mirthlessly, at the thought.

Thompson has avoided the sack. But the manner of his departure from the BBC was peculiar. In January, Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, announced that he had asked headhunters to look into the question of the next director-general. Since Thompson had not actually announced his resignation, it looked like he was being given a discreet push in the back, to hurry him on his way.

But while Thompson’s departure was handled awkwardly, he will leave office with dignity and a record of success. He has managed to avoid the acute, career-ending controversies that dogged his predecessors. Talking to him, it is easy to see why.

The director-general’s manner of speaking reflects acute political antennae. He is editor-in-chief of the BBC, and has a way of editing himself, as he speaks, so as to smooth over any potentially controversial statements. After a remark that suggests that the Iraq war might ultimately be vindicated, his brow furrows and he adds, quickly, that of course it’s too soon to tell. A comment that might be interpreted as critical of the US is accompanied by the qualifier “I’m allowed to say that, my wife’s American.” Talking about the European Union, he says, “In my first few months in the job I went to Europe to talk to people,” – before correcting himself to avoid any implication of British insularity. “I say to Europe, we live in Europe. I mean, I went to Brussels.” Thompson has been in the news business long enough to know where all the traps lie – both to the right and the left.

One area where Thompson’s ability to judge the public mood let him down was in tolerating levels of salary for senior BBC executives that meant that 37 of them were earning more than the prime minister. Thompson himself was paid more than £800,000 a year – not huge by private-sector standards – but still more than four times the salary of David Cameron, for a public-sector job.

As well as being a public relations problem, the high levels of pay for executives with obscure-sounding jobs may also have soured Thompson’s relationship with less lavishly remunerated members of the BBC staff, many of whom are smarting over pay-freezes and pension cutbacks that were imposed as the BBC’s finances have tightened. His determination to make the BBC less London-centred by moving some production facilities and staff to Salford, near Manchester, has also caused grumbles.

But, talking to BBC staff, it seems as if Thompson will leave the Corporation neither loved nor loathed. He does not inspire the fierce loyalty enjoyed by Greg Dyke, his ebullient predecessor. But he is not distrusted and mocked like the influential John Birt, whose remote style and taste for obscure management jargon (“Birt-speak”) infuriated some staff. The consensus view about Thompson inside the BBC appears to be that he has done a good job of stabilising the Corporation, but that he is a poor communicator who can be hesitant and rambling in large groups. One former executive says he was much more effective in smaller gatherings, where his intellect and informality could be inspiring. Although several of his close colleagues are clearly fond of him, one says that the DG is “very much a cat who walks by himself”. The fact that he lives in Oxford with his wife and three children, and returns there each night after work, has limited the time for socialising with his London-based staff.

‘Blue Peter’ cat

Famous rows have involved the ‘Blue Peter’ cat, handbags put on expenses and, above all, executive pay

I have come armed with various questions about the controversies that have cropped up during his time at the BBC: the rows about vulgar comedians, Blue Peter cats, handbags put on expenses and, above all, about executive pay.

Thompson’s way of answering a direct question about a practical issue like pay tends, however, to translate it into a question of theory and abstract principle. He then either shuts his eyes and talks softly at length, or stares at some point in the middle distance while examining the issue from all angles – in a faintly donnish style, punctuated by lots of “ums”, “you knows” and parenthetical digressions. I do not know whether it is a deliberate tactic. But it is a remarkably effective way of draining the drama from an issue. The conversation drifts away from executive pay into less painful areas such as the BBC’s long battle to fight off its free-market critics, who regard the corporation as an ideological aberration.

Thompson’s career has, in a sense, been framed by this argument. He left Oxford and joined the BBC in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power.

For true Thatcherites, there was always something intrinsically objectionable about the BBC. They believed that, as a huge state-financed organisation, it was inherently biased towards the left. Its staff was caricatured as part of a “metropolitan elite” with liberal views, remote from those of the general public. Thatcherites objected, on principle, to the idea of a broadcaster that was funded by a compulsory tax on the public – the television licence fee. The argument that the BBC is an anachronism survived the fall of Thatcher. Indeed it gathered force as the advance of multi-channel television – and then the internet and social media – made it easier to argue that the BBC behemoth belonged to another age. The Murdoch empire in particular took aim at the BBC, arguing that it enjoyed a privileged position that was crushing Britain’s independent media and damaging the economy. In a landmark speech in 2009, James Murdoch, the scion of the dynasty, decried the BBC’s “chilling effect” on the media. “The BBC,” he remarked pointedly, “is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country.”

. . .

Murdoch’s arguments found an echo and a considerable degree of sympathy both among right-wing politicians and in the newspaper industry, which resents the competition from the BBC’s free news website. And yet, just as the Thompson-led BBC was bracing itself for a renewed assault on its privileges, the phone-hacking scandal broke over the heads of News Corp. James Murdoch resigned this week as chairman of British Sky Broadcasting and the newspaper industry is convulsed by the Leveson inquiry into journalistic ethics. The pressure is off the BBC, which once again is being held up as a paragon of high standards.

BBC iPlayer

A notable feature of the Thompson era is the energy with which the BBC has promoted its programmes on new digital platforms

I ask Thompson if he and the BBC are finally emerging as victors in the long cultural war over the place of the Corporation in national life. Are any of the old arguments closer to being settled? Thompson replies cautiously: “I think some of the arguments of the past 30 years are a bit closer to being settled, yes … The popularity of the licence fee as a way of paying for the BBC is actually going up ... We’ve also demonstrated comprehensively that we can continue to thrive and reach very large audiences in a digital world. That was very much still an open question, when I came in.” It is generally agreed that one of the features of the Thompson era is the energy with which the BBC has promoted its programmes on new digital platforms such as the iPlayer, which allows viewers to watch or listen to BBC programmes up to a week after they have been broadcast.

For all these successes, however, Thompson is either too polite or too cautious to indulge in any schadenfreude at the expense of the Murdochs. Did he think that James Murdoch’s attacks on the BBC were simply a front for the commercial interests of Sky Television? Thompson smiles: “From James’s point of view ... I’ve always felt his ideological view, by happy chance, does coincide with his commercial interests. I don’t think he’s a secret lover of the BBC, who is just pretending to hate it. It’s all real”. He laughs cheerfully.

If the BBC had simply gained from an accident that has befallen the Murdoch empire, its respite might be brief. But the Corporation may also have benefited from a broader shift in public mood. “If you look at opinion polls,” Thompson points out, “the only two big institutions whose ratings have improved in the eyes of the public over the past five years are the BBC and the National Health Service.” The similarities are obvious. Both are huge publicly-funded providers that have long been objectionable to free-market purists, but seem to command deep loyalty among the British public. The BBC is often referred to as “Auntie”. The NHS could be called “Matron”. Both have withstood the assaults of the Iron Lady and her ideological heirs. Indeed, after the financial crisis the public mood may have shifted even further against the old Thatcherite orthodoxies. Thompson muses that “we’re living in a period where people’s reliance on and anxiety about public services is growing”.

. . .

Thompson’s victory in the culture wars was not just down to lucky accident. It also took judgment. The two of his predecessors as DG to have most obviously met sticky ends, Greg Dyke and Alasdair Milne, both fell after colossal rows with the government of the day over the BBC coverage of the news. (Milne after a series of accusations of left-wing bias at the BBC; Dyke after a tussle over the coverage of the Iraq war.) The details of those disagreements now seem arcane. But they both testified to the fine line that the BBC must tread. It is a news provider that cherishes its independence from government. But it is clearly vulnerable to political pressure – both because its funding is dependent on decisions made by the government, and because its huge importance means that it is constantly in the sights of politicians.

Better business programming

Thompson introduced more business coverage, not just in news, but with programmes such as ‘The Apprentice’

As editor-in-chief, the DG has to guide the Corporation’s journalistic output. Thompson says that when he came in, he sought to make three main adjustments. The first was to provide more coverage of business – not just in the BBC’s news coverage, but in its other output. One of the most successful TV programmes of his era has been The Apprentice – where ambitious tyros compete to get a job as a sidekick to Alan Sugar, the entrepreneur. The second issue was immigration. Thompson says that he was aware that many of his colleagues felt that the whole subject was so incendiary that it was best to underplay it. But he was “uncomfortable with the idea that there was any subject that should be off-limits, particularly one that our own polling told us was of huge concern to the public.” The final subject was the European Union.

What Thompson doesn’t say explicitly is that all three adjustments were ways of demonstrating that the BBC is not an intrinsically left-wing organisation. After the row with the Blair government over the coverage of the Iraq war, the BBC was more vulnerable than ever to this charge. Its conservative critics had also long accused the Beeb of taking a snooty attitude to wealth creation and of harbouring a liberal horror of public attitudes to immigration or the EU. In different ways, all of Thompson’s three tugs on the editorial tiller were efforts to avoid another direct collision with the BBC’s right-wing critics.

In a digital age, there is clearly a risk that the BBC’s audience will simply fragment and drift away. One possible reaction to that would have been to concentrate on providing “up-market”, niche programming that would give the BBC a distinctive role in the market. The danger with that strategy, however, is that it risks turning the BBC into a service for the elite, which nonetheless demands revenues from the entire public. Under Thompson, the BBC has pursued a very different path – deliberately going for audience “reach” and aiming to provide something for everybody. The Thompson strategy has been to provide a plethora of programmes on many channels – from high-brow classical music on Radio 3 to low-brow popular television on BBC Three: a channel that has raised a few eyebrows with programmes such as My Dog Is As Fat As Me and My Man-Boobs And Me.

The strategy has worked. As Thompson points out, the level of the British public’s engagement with the BBC remains extraordinary. The BBC claims that some 96 per cent of the British public watch or listen to its programming each week, for an average of 18 hours and 50 minutes a week. The idea that the BBC’s audience would dwindle away in the digital era has been comprehensively disproved. On the contrary, the internet is allowing it to reach a much larger global audience.

Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand

The comedians left taunting messages on the answerphone of an elderly actor, causing a furore about BBC vulgarity

And yet if Thompson did have a disagreement with Lord Patten it may have been about this strategy of “reach”. In January, the month in which he announced that headhunters had been appointed to look for the next DG, Patten also gave a speech in which he announced that the BBC should not chase ratings and that its output should never be “vulgar”. Perhaps it was those man-boobs that were bothering him; or maybe he was thinking about the row about the comedians Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, who had left taunting messages on the answerphone of an elderly actor. Either way, Patten’s speech could easily be read as a dig at Thompson’s BBC.

Thompson, however, does not see it that way. “I believe passionately that the BBC should never be vulgar,” he announces – before characteristically qualifying his remarks. “Well, it should never be downmark et… Sometimes the character of cutting-edge comedy is something that is not entirely different from vulgar.” The idea he is trying to squelch, however, is that there is any fundamental difference between his vision of the BBC and that of Lord Patten: “Chris absolutely gets that what makes the BBC unique is that we can be as passionate about classic, serious, engaged programmes – like that amazing recent BBC2 documentary about Lucian Freud – and about high-quality Saturday night entertainment, in the tradition of Morecambe and Wise.”

Whatever the facts that lie behind his departure, Thompson, aged 54, must now look for his next job. There is some speculation that he will take a big media job in the US. On the other hand, he already lives in Oxford and has academic interests. It might be logical for him to take up the mastership of an Oxford College – in which case he will run into Chris Patten again, since one of his Lordship’s other jobs is chancellor of Oxford University.

As we wind up, I ask Thompson what his advice will be to his successor? He pauses: “One of the things that people really like about the BBC is that it’s unchanging. People see the BBC as a calm, authoritative voice in an increasingly hysterical world”. But, he continues, the desire to preserve that asset can be paralysing. BBC managers and trustees are in danger of treating the organisation “like a Ming vase that they are terrified will tip off the table and break … Even quite small changes in the Radio 4 schedule can have people sharpening their knives.” The reality, as Thompson sees it, is that if the BBC does not change with the times, it will wither away. “So who’s going to stand up for change? It has to be the director-general, really.” Or, as the Sicilian novelist Lampedusa famously put it: “Everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist

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