It is not until he has a whoopee pie in his hand that the director-general of the BBC becomes really animated. Clasping the small cupcake, two slices of chocolate brownie cemented by thick cream filling made by his 16-year-old daughter the previous evening, he waves a hand towards the fifth-floor window of his meeting room that looks out over west London.
“They’re not out there!” Mark Thompson says emphatically, before taking a hearty bite from the cake. “They” are the British public, the BBC’s audience, payers of the licence fee that helps fund the world’s biggest broadcasting corporation. “They”, currently, are also Thompson’s staunchest allies.
Britain’s coalition government, however, – at least the Conservative side of it – would like to rein in the BBC. Jeremy Hunt, the cabinet minister responsible for the media, last week accused it of “outrageous waste” and suggested that the next round of five-yearly negotiations over the size of the licence fee, starting a year from now, could see the BBC catch a severe cold.
The latest criticisms are all part of a familiar argument: the BBC is far too big and wealthy; in an era of austerity it is still “awash in a Jacuzzi of cash”, as the head of rival Channel 4, then one Mark Thompson, said six years ago; it overpays top stars; it overpays Thompson – a package of £838,000 last year – and his managers; spending is extravagant, funded by a £3.5bn licence fee, obligatory at £145.50 a year to anyone with a television set; its commercial wing stifles private companies; its internet news service makes it impossible for newspapers, such as those owned by Rupert Murdoch, to operate behind a paywall. And so on.
So I have just asked Thompson if he feels under siege but, looking down on to a pavement empty of protesters and angry mobs, he emphatically does not. “I suppose you’ve got some of the noise that goes with a siege but, frankly, the people who could not only besiege but topple the BBC are the British public and they’re not out there. A few members of the press and others might be standing out there with placards saying, ‘You’re faced with a vast siege here.’ But look at what the public say about the BBC and it’s not there.”
We finish our deliciously rich whoopee pies; pudding has acted as a brief semicolon in Thompson’s often epic thought processes and brought a boyish grin to his round face.
Arranging lunch with Thompson has proved, to use a word he uses often, a “challenge”. At his request, our plan to go to a restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush, close to his offices, has been cancelled. Another of the squalls of bad publicity (Thompson disarmingly calls them “weather fronts”) that appear to relentlessly surround Britain’s publicly funded broadcaster has blown up; the “DG”, his office explains, needs to be leading in person. If I want lunch, I have to go to him.
As a sop, his fixers promise that the venue will be his “inner sanctum”. So it is with great suspicion that I look at Thompson when he guides me not through but past a swish wood-panelled door into an adjacent room, small and functional, with a glass-topped round table and a view over Westfield, Europe’s largest urban shopping complex. Looking over my shoulder, I wonder what luxuries, the result of squandering licence-fee payers’ money, he has whisked me past?
Thompson, 52, is relaxed and friendly, his purple-and-green checked shirt open at the collar, his BBC identity card swinging round his neck. We sit round the table and I unpack a picnic – I have rejected the offer of BBC canteen food as not quite in keeping with the concept of Lunch with the FT. Instead, I have made ham and chicken baguettes. He chooses ham, and gratefully accepts a plastic container of beetroot and lettuce salad, picked that morning from my wife’s allotment. He has brought the whoopee pies.
“This salad is bloody delicious,” Thompson says, as he chomps away with characteristic and amiable gusto. It’s quite a compliment from a man who regards cooking as one of his hobbies and is friends with the chef Raymond Blanc, who lives near Thompson in Oxford. Thompson himself is renowned for the home-made pasta he serves at his large detached Victorian house in the donnish northern area of the university city.
He travels to work in London by train most mornings and escapes back to Oxford most nights, a commute that allows him to overhear the conversations of his audience. “Public transport is quite good for the soul,” he says. “I mean, if you’re running an organisation [such as the BBC], you need to hear a lot of conversations. On the platform you hear what people are talking about and they’re often talking about broadcasting, it’s something about not living entirely in our sort of bubble.”
Thompson is hinting that, despite his reputation as a lofty thinker, a brain on legs with little of the common touch, he is sufficiently in touch with the audience to know the strength of its support. The majority of Britons have an opinion on the BBC, have grown up with Dr Who or EastEnders, adore or deplore Strictly Come Dancing or Life on Earth. The BBC’s two main TV channels represent 30 per cent of average viewing, its radio stations 56.5 per cent of listening.
But the size and the influence of the BBC also ensure its omnipresence in the national chat room. Here, licence fee payers argue over everything from the explicit message that BBC presenter Jonathan Ross and comedian Russell Brand left on the answering machine of veteran Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs during a BBC radio show in 2008, to the decision to allow a speaker from the far-right British National Party to appear on the flagship current affairs programme Question Time in 2009, to the proposal earlier this year to close niche digital radio stations 6 Music and Asian Network.
If Thompson’s dismissal of being under siege from the press is disingenuous – it was, after all, an article in a tabloid newspaper rather than the broadcast of Ross and Brand’s prank itself that provoked the thousands of complaints that obliged Thompson to fly back from holiday to deal with the public uproar – he is right that the BBC’s strength comes from the fact that people care enough to complain.
So, I suggest, he will begin to worry only when they stop caring. Aware that he has a reputation for arrogance, he wants to show humility. “I think the public mood is different now from five or six years ago and we’re trying to respond to that. It is reasonable to ask, ‘How much do you pay your executives?’ ‘How much do you pay top talent?’” Thompson points out that Ross, reportedly on £6m a year at the BBC, has now moved on to ITV and that he, Thompson, and his fellow executives have all taken 8.3 per cent pay cuts, and promises more sacrifice is to come.
What of the criticisms that the BBC has grown too big? Its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, pulls in more than £1bn a year and made £145m profit in 2009-10, at a time when rivals were stumbling badly. Its website is the fourth most-visited news source in the world, but, its critics say, this comes at the expense of the health of the newspaper industry.
In his keynote speech at last year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, James Murdoch, chief of News Corp, which owns the broadcasting company BSkyB, as well as The Times and The Sun newspapers, said the BBC’s ambitions were “chilling”, that its online activities should be “dealt with”. The speech did not win support from the floor then, but its criticisms have been repeated often since.
Thompson, who will have the chance to respond next month when he delivers this year’s MacTaggart lecture, shrugs off such attacks. “The real pressure is more to do with the fact that in the digital world we all meet each other and that suddenly [we’re in this place where] you’ve got a website, we’ve got a website. How does that feel?”
He also dismisses the idea that the BBC’s free internet news prevents the Murdoch newspapers from successfully charging for their content. “Does that follow? Is it credible that every single provider of news in the world is going to go behind a paywall? I mean there are plenty of news sources with sovereign funds backing them – Al Jazeera is just one example – who do not need to go behind a paywall. Actually, if the BBC helps create a climate in this country where people are really interested in news, it’s probably going to be good for UK newspapers. American newspapers are not having any more luck with this than UK ones, rather less so actually and the BBC does not loom large in America.”
As to the coalition government, Thompson, who occasionally allows schoolboyish glee to interrupt his solemn monologues, says he may need “a magazine down the back of the trousers” when he goes in to see culture secretary Jeremy Hunt formally.
He switches to a more serious tone: “We are part of this country, we’re this country’s national broadcaster, we don’t expect to be, as it were, arguing as if we were living on some other planet.”
“I believe,” he says, reaching for the broader-brush terms that often give him the air of a bureaucrat, “that the BBC should be as small as its mission allows and I believe that the BBC should not be overfunded. The BBC should be set challenging efficiency targets and … of course, there should be scrutiny.”
Scrutiny doesn’t come only from outside the BBC. Many of Thompson’s 17,000 staff (there were 23,000 when he arrived in 2004) are also unhappy with their leader at the moment. Strikes loom, anger principally focused on the decision to make drastic cuts to their pension scheme. One union leader told me that while he could not fault Thompson for strategic vision and marshalling the BBC’s defence of its independence, he did not feel that he was an inspirational director-general.
Thompson concedes that he has a different style from either of his immediate predecessors as BBC director-general – the iconoclastic and populist Greg Dyke, and, before that, John Birt, whom he greatly admires. “People would not have said, I think, [that] John was an inspirational figure. John did not have that reputation when he was director-general at the BBC,” he says. “I mean he is, but that wasn’t his reputation. I think [the unions] were saying exactly the same thing about him as they are saying about me.”
In part this perception is probably created by Thompson’s cerebral manner. He often speaks like a man whose brain is racing many moves ahead – regularly halting mid-idea, to emit an “err … err … err … ” as he reels in his thought processes to return to the place that his voice has reached. He seldom finishes a sentence, often leaves what could have been a brilliant thought hanging in the air. In doing so, he finds it hard to convey his zeal for the BBC with sincerity, even to his own people.
He is, however, undeniably proud of having “got our journalism back into a confident state”, a reference to the fact that Thompson arrived as Dyke resigned, following an immense row with Tony Blair’s government over the BBC’s reporting of the justification for invading Iraq in 2003. It is easy to forget that Thompson’s period in office began at a time when the independence of the BBC was under serious threat.
“We’re prepared to go to the stake for the BBC’s impartiality,” says Thompson, who in January 2009 refused to broadcast an appeal for refugees in Gaza for this reason. He adds that it is critically important that the organisation remains independent of government too, and is proud of the broadcaster’s reputation abroad. “We’re still on the world’s front lines,” he says, “In Afghanistan, on the radio, we are a really critical part of the supply of news.” He also points to countries such as Somalia, “where the BBC Somalia service is basically it”.
We pack up the picnic (Thompson is a fastidious, tidy man), and I ask whether he is annoyed that journalists constantly mention his strong Catholic faith. His disjointed answer is typical of the way he talks when trying to suppress an underlying irritation: “I would say I don’t like words like ‘devout’, I think ‘practising’, I mean accuracy. I mean the fact that I’m not a sinner, but I mean my idea about that is it’s a biographical fact.”
What about his personal faith in the BBC? “Not to be too theological about it, I suppose if you are talking about believing in it, then there’s the City of God and the city you’ve got. If you do my job, you’re always looking at the heavenly city of the BBC as it could be, should be, and the whole time you’re wrestling the realities of a big noisy, complex, heterogeneous, creative organisation and you’re trying to move this particular city up the shining stairs to the City of God,” he says.
As I rise to leave, he looks pointedly at the wood-panelled door and then at me. “Installed for John Birt,” he says. “Want to look inside?”
At last, I think. The opulent inner sanctum is about to be revealed. But it is not a temple of indulgence at all. It is merely a loo. With a shower. “I’ve never used it,” he grins and pads off.
Ben Fenton is the FT’s chief media correspondent
BBC Media City
5th floor, Wood Lane, London W14
1 ham baguette
1 chicken baguette
Allotment lettuce & beetroot salad
2 bottles of mineral water
The man from Auntie
1957 Born in London; grows up in Welwyn Garden City.
1969 His father Duncan dies and his mother, a devout Catholic, sends him away to Stonyhurst, a Jesuit-run school in Lancashire.
1979 Graduates with a first in English from Merton College, Oxford, and wins a prestigious BBC traineeship.
1981 Involved in the launch of Watchdog, later to become one of the BBC’s longest-running programmes.
1987 Marries American academic Jane Blumberg.
1988 At 30, becomes the youngest-ever editor of the Nine O’Clock News.
1992 Becomes head of features.
1994 Becomes head of factual programming.
1996 Appointed controller of BBC 2, where he commissioned acclaimed programmes such as The Royle Family and The League of Gentlemen.
1997 Makes an impassioned speech about the BBC to the Royal Television Society.
1999 Appointed director of national and regional broadcasting, then made director of TV in 2000.
2002 Moves to Channel 4 as chief executive, promising to remain for “many years”.
2004 Replaces Greg Dyke as BBC director-general after the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, a Ministry of Defence scientist named as the source of reports that Tony Blair’s government had “sexed up” a dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
2007 BBC criticised after spliced-together footage of the Queen appears to show her storming out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz.
2008 Suspends presenter Jonathan Ross for three months unpaid after he and Russell Brand leave explicit messages on actor Andrew Sachs’ answerphone.
2009 Persistent reports of BBC bosses’ expenses force him to put all salaries and expenses online.
2010 Controversially axes digital radio stations 6 Music and Asian Network. After thousands of complaints, 6 Music is saved.