All change at this station

The BBC's new director general Mark Thompson is determined to implement rapid reform - starting at the top. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

While the BBC's rank and file may still be basking in the warm glow of the post-Hutton dawn, a rather colder atmosphere is taking hold among the upper echelons of the organisation. It is barely a month since the arrival of the new director general Mark Thompson, but already his senior executives are nervous. There is talk of redundancies, cuts and being sent into exile in the regions. One senior executive has left, another's record as channel head is under review and a third is being investigated over expenses.

While the BBC's rank and file may still be basking in the warm glow of the post-Hutton dawn, a rather colder atmosphere is taking hold among the upper echelons of the organisation. It is barely a month since the arrival of the new director general Mark Thompson, but already his senior executives are nervous. There is talk of redundancies, cuts and being sent into exile in the regions. One senior executive has left, another's record as channel head is under review and a third is being investigated over expenses.

Even a BBC spokesman admits: "It is not a carnival at the moment. The corporation is facing more significant change than at any time in its history. Getting the new charter is not a certainty."

The resignation last week of Rupert Gavin, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, should be seen in the context of the desire for rapid reform. Gavin's departure came just weeks after Thompson hinted that the BBC's commercial arm could be sold off or broken up. Gavin did not want to work for a pared down Worldwide and may want to lead a buy-out if it is put up for sale.

Thompson appears to be using insecurity at the top levels to encourage acceptance of a new era of change. Further evidence of such a strategy emerged in his reaction to the BBC board of governors' announcement of an independent review of BBC1. The flagship channel's controller Lorraine Heggessey is an ally of the director general. In his previous incarnation as director of television, Thompson appointed her to the job without a formal interview board. Some colleagues, therefore, expected Thompson to react defensively when the governors expressed concern about the channel. He did point out that Heggessey has already implemented schedule changes, but a senior colleague claims: "Mark was not unhappy to see her under pressure. It helps to make his point that nobody is sacrosanct. He could have ruled out management changes but he has deliberately not done that."

Another insider says: "There will be changes. The executive committee has felt a degree of discomfort already. Thompson is making it very clear that he will not insulate people in the BBC and pretend they are a special breed that cannot be touched." Thompson has no record of putting loyalty before strategic objectives. A senior executive says: "Mark is in a honeymoon period and he knows it. This is the time to prove that he means business."

Then there is the investigation, ordered by Thompson, into allegations against creative director Alan Yentob, who is accused of misusing expenses budgets, which he denies. It would be wrong to suggest that the inquiry is a calculated move by Thompson to unsettle a senior BBC figure. In any large corporation if someone registers a complaint it has to be investigated.

As one television executive explains: "People believe the whispering campaign against Alan started with Mark's arrival but it pre-dated it by a long way. There have always been people who resent a senior executive who is also a frontline presenter." Nevertheless, Yentob felt badly treated by the way the BBC handled news of the allegations against him. One source close to him says: "He thought he was left a bit stranded by them. The way they put it out made it look like he was guilty."

Although it is wrong to say that Yentob is Thompson's chosen victim to advertise a desire to get tough, the desire itself is real. One senior BBC source says: "Mark has studied the achievements of previous DGs and one thing emerges very clearly. If you are going to alter the regime you have to make the really dramatic changes in the first six months. The things on which Mark will be judged have got to be implemented immediately or they won't happen."

The prospect of cuts ("efficiency savings") and staff being moved to new offices in Manchester is also unsettling. A radio journalist says: "People regard the regions as provincial backwaters packed with folk who didn't make the grade."

In part, say senior BBC figures, Thompson is using insecurity to accelerate change because he has no choice. The new relationship between governors and management has created an environment unlike any experienced by previous DGs. A BBC spokesman says: "Tensions between governors and management will grow as the governors become more independent. The board used to just publish unalloyed praise of everything management was doing. In future they will not do that."

This pressure from above may become more intense. The BBC's chairman, Michael Grade, has made plain his wish to see new governors with real knowledge of the industry. A source explains: "Michael does not just mean former broadcasters. He means people with relevant experience in business." That would be an improvement on the political placemen who have traditionally regulated the BBC, but Grade cannot pick governors.

If Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State, appoints well-informed candidates to vacancies on the BBC board it will be interpreted as evidence that she is keen to see reform made real. Thompson would appreciate that. Several executives just below him in the BBC hierarchy might not.

There is speculation that Thompson has identified a few colleagues who can make things happen. Members of his new, slimmed-down, executive committee include Carolyn Fairbairn (director of strategy), Jana Bennett (director of television) and Jenny Abramsky (director of radio and music). Insiders say all three are trusted supporters of change. Beyond this upper echelon the head of radio news, Stephen Mitchell, is said to be "enjoying the new atmosphere". But other executives in the nations and regions, sport and drama are said to be "less comfortable". One respected BBC figure says: "Some people are pretty pissed off because the broadcasters have got control and the programme makers have all been demoted."

Popular director generals of the BBC are not always good at their job and Thompson is determined to be effective. But there is a distinctive element in his approach. He is worrying senior colleagues more than grassroots staff. One TV journalist says: "He is top dog and you have to move into line or get out of the way. But his appointment feels good for the BBC. Last week we even had a seminar on investigative journalism. For once it was quite encouraging. It was made clear where we are heading and that we are not backing down."

It is rare for morale among BBC staff to be higher than it is among their senior managers. One month into the Thompson regime that is the way the BBC feels. One source says: "In the past musical chairs among BBC managers just changed names and job titles. When Mark reshuffles he may well leave empty chairs as well." A suspicion is spreading that Thompson has no time for expensive passengers.

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