Broadcasting: Why Thompson needs to get it right first time

The onus is on the BBC's new director-general to restore confidence and creativity - and to do it fast. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

When Mark Thompson left the BBC in 2001 his plan was already made. He departed in order to return as director-general. This BBC lifer, who joined the corporation as a production trainee in 1979, understood the rule established first by the appointment of John Birt and confirmed by the arrival of Greg Dyke. Knowing the BBC intimately was no longer enough. Directors-general are required to have hands-on experience of commercial television too. Thompson went to Channel 4 to get it.

When Mark Thompson left the BBC in 2001 his plan was already made. He departed in order to return as director-general. This BBC lifer, who joined the corporation as a production trainee in 1979, understood the rule established first by the appointment of John Birt and confirmed by the arrival of Greg Dyke. Knowing the BBC intimately was no longer enough. Directors-general are required to have hands-on experience of commercial television too. Thompson went to Channel 4 to get it.

If that sounds Machiavellian, it has not yet sunk in at Television Centre. BBC staff, and particularly journalists, were overjoyed when Thompson's appointment was confirmed. Their calculation was blunt. He is not Mark Byford, the acting DG whose reputation had been in freefall for months. As one senior BBC news executive told me: "Byford did not look like a DG and he did not sound like a DG." Another journalist said: "A lot of us know next to nothing about Mark Thompson, but he's not Mark Byford. That's good enough."

But it may not be enough. Thompson's arrival may bring a symbolic end to the BBC's Hutton-induced self-doubt, however that does not mean that it automatically restores confidence and creativity. Thompson will have to hit the ground running if he is to achieve that. Charter renewal is too imminent to allow any extended period of bedding in.

More than any other DG before him, Mark Thompson must be both tactically and strategically right first time. He has less than two years to persuade the Government of the value of a licence fee funded BBC in a multichannel age. It is not a foregone conclusion. Thompson cannot even be certain that the Labour ministers with whom he will commence discussions will not be ousted before 2006. It is not only the BBC that has been pushed into crisis by events in Iraq.

So, is Thompson dynamic enough and brilliant enough for the challenge ahead? He is enormously self-confident and decisive. In his previous stint at the BBC he displayed contempt for the corporation's tradition of decision-making by committee and revelled in the capacity to make hard choices. Many at the BBC believe it is a reputation that he confirmed at Channel 4.

That belief deserves to be interrogated. Thompson was a ruthless Chief Executive. He turned loss into profit at Channel 4, not least by axing staff and slashing budgets at the critically acclaimed Film Four. But his promise that, under his leadership, the broadcaster would fill the "creative deficit" in British television was not realised. That pledge, made in his 2002 MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh International Television Festival, will haunt him. As he leaves Channel 4 the broadcaster has not yet turned the corner and his own proposal that it might need to merge with upstart rival channel Five proved vulnerability.

Among the most senior echelons at the BBC there are Thompson supporters, genuinely pleased that he is to be their new boss, who point out that he is still a potentially great leader, not a proven one. They remember previous Thompson mistakes, such as his bold prediction, just before he left the BBC, that the corporation's future lay in digital services to niche audiences and not in mass audience terrestrial television. That is not an opinion he will want to repeat today.

Few BBC insiders believe that Thompson will excite the same degree of personal loyalty as Greg Dyke. He is cerebral rather than matey. But there are few doubts that he possesses the key skills the BBC most requires.

In the immediate aftermath of Hutton a very senior BBC source told me: "The next director-general is going to have to be a devastating editor-in-chief. If anything really failed during the Gilligan affair it was our editorial supervision. Greg was no journalist. He stood by his man when a more experienced editor would have walked away long before real damage could be inflicted." Mark Thompson is a journalist. He is expected to perform with confidence in that role, although eyebrows were raised in the BBC newsroom over his decision to pull the documentary Edge of the City from Channel 4's schedule.

To BBC staff who have been infuriated by Mark Byford's supine approach to controversial journalism, Thompson's final decision at Channel 4 looked alarming. Many felt that it was inappropriate to stop the transmission of a programme that contained no editorial errors, simply because the police asked that it should be postponed. One BBC editor said: "If he had made that decision as director-general it would have blown up in his face."

Fascinated by politics and high culture, he will champion programme ideas that will challenge the notion that the BBC is dumbing down. But insiders acknowledge that he will need excellent support from his channel controllers in order to maintain audience share at the same time as reaping critical acclaim. His populist instincts are not obvious. Under his stewardship Channel 4's ratings have been mediocre.

Mark Thompson is a work in progress, but he starts with the advantage of being wanted. The chairman, Michael Grade, chose him as his DG, and BBC staff want to be led more than at any stage in their recent history. He faces no internal hostility, almost uniquely for a BBC director-general his enemies are outside the corporation. He has not been appointed to usurp the role of creative programme makers or to restore the touchy-feely "one family" atmosphere cultivated by Dyke. Mark Thompson's success will depend on his ability to communicate the case for public service broadcasting to politicians and licence payers, who, if he succeeds, may hardly notice him. He is playing for higher stakes than the fare we watch on our screens.

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