Can Mark Thompson secure the BBC's future?

After two years away from the BBC, Mark Thompson can now see the corporation as outsiders do - warts and all - writes Tim Gardam
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The Independent Online

When Mark Thompson walks back into the BBC, after his brief 26 months away, he will be surely struck by the fact that, whatever the superficial changes of regime, the place essentially remains the same. The BBC of 2004 has as many employees, if not more, than the BBC of 1979 that he joined, even though the rest of the broadcasting world has fragmented into a myriad of pieces around it. At White City Tube station on a weekday morning, the scene is reminiscent of a Lowry painting, as literally thousands of staff troop in long lines into the ever-expanding complex of BBC buildings. For many there, it is impossible to imagine life beyond it. However, from the outside world, its future is under question as never before.

When Mark Thompson walks back into the BBC, after his brief 26 months away, he will be surely struck by the fact that, whatever the superficial changes of regime, the place essentially remains the same. The BBC of 2004 has as many employees, if not more, than the BBC of 1979 that he joined, even though the rest of the broadcasting world has fragmented into a myriad of pieces around it. At White City Tube station on a weekday morning, the scene is reminiscent of a Lowry painting, as literally thousands of staff troop in long lines into the ever-expanding complex of BBC buildings. For many there, it is impossible to imagine life beyond it. However, from the outside world, its future is under question as never before.

Thompson, after his two years at Channel 4, will bring back with him one great strength. He can now see the place as others see it. At Channel 4, he swiftly understood how the BBC, which, from the inside, often feels itself under-appreciated and under siege, can appear, from the outside, overbearing and indifferent to its effect on the rest of the television market.

Thompson knows too well that the success or failure of his time as director-general will be determined in the next few months. The BBC is currently sailing into a typhoon of external scrutiny. The Government Green Paper at the turn of the year will set in stone the terms of the new BBC Charter. The Graf Review of its online services is imminent. There will follow reviews of its digital television and radio services, a DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) Review of Radio, as well as two even more fundamental reviews, The Charter Review, led by Terry Burns, and the Ofcom Review of the whole of Public Service Television. The existence of many of these, as Michael Grade and Thompson must realise, is testament to the failure of the structure of the BBC Board of Governors recently to provide sufficient critical distance to perform its role as effective regulator. Grade's task will be to reconceive BBC Governance to provide that external scrutiny; Thompson's to change the culture of the organisation to take more seriously its need to account to the world outside for the way it operates.

Thompson is the best person now in British television to achieve this. He can cultivate that air of omniscience, necessary in any senior television executive, to argue with conviction a case that, three years ago, would have been antithetical to his purpose. Yet behind such tactical agility is a clear understanding of the economic, cultural and political foundations on which public-service television is based.

In the early 1990s, he wrote John Birt's manifesto for the renewal of the BBC Charter, "Extending Choice". More than a decade on, it reads as a very clever document, one in which the BBC argued for its exceptionalism without appearing self-serving. John Birt, however reviled, remains the great designer of the current BBC. But it was left to Greg Dyke to reveal just how formidable a machine Birt had built. During the late 1990s, in BBC Kremlinology, the Stalinist Birt era gave way to Dyke's Kruschevian spring, and it was Thompson who gave an intellectual patina to the burst of creative energy, bordering on recklessness, that the change of regime produced.

It was Thompson's speech to the Banff Television Festival in 2001 that notoriously laid out the Dyke strategy for BBC digital television channels, designed as a shameless land-grab for the future television terrain. The argument, the clear allocation of portfolios between BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, was the logical consequence of Birt's deeply laid strategic vision, but it was made with a candour that Birt would have been far too cautious to betray. Though this response to the emerging world of digital choice was sharp and clear, its flaw was that it picked apart the dialectic of "making the good popular and the popular good", Huw Wheldon's conception of the integral purpose of public-service broadcasting. In particular, its broad description of BBC 1 as primarily an entertainment channel (a strategy now largely abandoned), became the focus for the attack on the BBC for sacrificing its flagship television channel to commercial competitiveness.

However, the perspective that Thompson will have gained since running Channel 4, a channel with a public-service remit more rigorously regulated, where every penny of income has to be earned, will have fundamentally altered his view of BBC television. The privilege that is the licence fee will be all the more apparent. He has described the BBC as swimming in "Jacuzzis of cash". He will have no doubt that the BBC is at a fork in the road. The ongoing Review of Public Service Television by the new regulator, Ofcom, for the first time forces the BBC to see itself as part of the overall landscape of British television, and not as some enchanted island. The greatest omission in the BBC's strategic vision in the past four years has been to regard its own actions as somehow incidental to the future of commercial public-service television. For Greg Dyke, it was enough for the BBC "to win"; the BBC never stopped to ask what was the purpose of its victories. BBC strategists failed to acknowledge the Government's policy objective of ensuring public-service competition in television. This has been the source of so many of its present difficulties.

The new director-general will have to articulate a clear philosophy of BBC competitiveness, which in turn will mean a far more convincing explanation of its attitude to ratings. Above all, he will have to make it clear where the BBC thinks it stands in relation to the rest of British television. Is it part of what the Government calls "an ecology", in which ITV, Channel 4 and even Five still have a role to play? Or does he believe that the economics of deregulated digital television will inevitably leave the BBC as the monopoly provider of public-service programmes? Thompson will understand that the way the BBC behaves will have a critical impact on the future incentives for commercial broadcasters to deliver programmes that are not simply there to maximise profit.

At the heart of this decision lies the future of the licence fee. Ofcom has already put on the table the arguments for releasing some of the licence fee to fund public-service television programmes on commercial channels. At Channel 4, Thompson argued against this, perhaps mindful of the possibility that he was about to jump ship. Yet, in his analysis of commercial television, he recognises that the switch to digital inexorably removes all the old incentives that once allowed ITV and Channel 4 to fund programmes of social and cultural significance regardless of their need to maximise profit.

Thompson will recognise that, if the BBC is to hang on to the licence fee as a monopoly, it cannot be seen to use its power in the market to drive commercial television away from such public-service obligations that they still have. Ironically, the definition of his success as DG may be to preside over a corporation that successfully gets relatively smaller, whereas all his predecessors have encouraged it relentlessly to grow.

It is inevitable that the BBC cedes more airtime to independent producers. It is only a question of how gracefully (or gracelessly) it does so. Thompson is the right choice for director-general because he has the perspective and intellect to tell those inside the BBC, as well as those beyond, what the definition of public-service broadcasting should be in the digital future. It can no longer simply be defined as whatever suits the BBC's self-interest at the time.

Tim Gardam is former director of programmes at Channel 4 and former head of current affairs at the BBC. He is principal elect of St Anne's College, Oxford

He boasts the perfect CV, but has the director-general stayed long enough in any job to prove his worth? Tim Luckhurst reports

Among the boasts made by Stonyhurst College is that it exists to educate men and women "for others". By this, Britain's elite Catholic public school means that it teaches pupils to lead. The latest of its alumni to reach high office is the BBC's new director-general, Mark Thompson. There are few better examples of the ambition that Stonyhurst's Jesuit staff seek to inculcate. The man BBC insiders have dubbed "the ultimate politician" is not just astute. He is driven.

One senior colleague says: "Thompson's tactic of insisting that he intended to remain at Channel 4 was entirely calculated. There was nobody in broadcasting who did not know that Mark wanted to be DG. But he managed to make it look as if Michael Grade was wooing him."

Few who know him are surprised. One broadcaster says: "His career plan has never been improvised. At each stage, Mark has known exactly where he intended to go next." A journalist who worked with him at Nationwide in the early 1980s agrees: "Mark is the media equivalent of Michael Heseltine. I never actually saw the back of the envelope on which he had written '2004: become DG', but I had no doubt that it existed."

Thompson's closest friends like to date his rise to the top from the moment at the 1997 Royal Television Society convention when Alan Yentob broke his tooth on a toffee and Thompson stepped forward to replace him. One BBC veteran, however, says that only those with "childlike naivety" would buy the story that Thompson's career turned on that single fortuitous event. "He certainly knows when to seize the moment, but Mark does not leave promotion to chance," he says.

There is plentiful evidence to support this view. In his autobiography, the former BBC deputy director-general Will Wyatt describes a breakfast he enjoyed with Thompson at Maison Blanc in Chiswick. Wyatt was recruiting a new controller of BBC nations and regions. Wyatt admits that, in Thompson's then position as controller of BBC2, he had "the best job in the whole BBC". But, Wyatt continues: "If he ever wanted to succeed me, say, he needed to be on the board of management." Thompson did not want the job of running local radio and television, but he took it. He craved what it might lead to.

And there's more. A former BBC executive recalls Thompson's attendance at a party early this year. "Greg Dyke was still director-general, and there was no hint that he would be forced to leave. Mark just talked intelligently and incessantly about the future of the BBC. He has an alarming capacity to think strategically about his own career."

If that sounds like jealousy, there's a lot of it about. Behind the euphoria that greeted Thompson's appointment, BBC colleagues have already identified a downside. This first is Thompson's age. At 46, he is considered dangerously young to have reached the top. Some fear he could stay in post long enough to condemn a generation of aspiring successors to the scrapheap. Less self-interested colleagues have a different concern. One says: "Every director-general has his own natural duration of tenure. Birt stayed too long and Dyke had not completed his. We needed a bit more Dyke to purge the place of Birtism. Thompson won't do that. In temperament, he is much closer to Birt than to Dyke."

Thompson has never compared himself to either predecessor. In one of his few published comments about himself, he said: "I'm the Reverend Casaubon, writing the key to all mythologies." Casaubon was the embittered and scholarly vicar in George Elliot's Middlemarch. Thompson shows no signs of being embittered, but he is scholarly to the point of arrogance.

Most executives at the BBC, however, believe that Thompson is an excellent appointment. A colleague who worked with him when he was editor of Panorama describes him as "warm, funny and very sharp. He was incredibly positive about ideas and very quick to make decisions."

But a friend from Thompson's university days at Oxford says that there should be concern about Thompson's impetuosity: "He sometimes reaches decisions too fast. He did it when he declared that the future of the BBC lay in niche digital channels and ignored the basic reality that more than 50 per cent of licence payers had no access to digital. The combination of Grade and Mark is potentially dangerous. They are both impetuous characters."

Thompson is largely impervious to criticism, but the challenge ahead is greater than any he has ever faced. In all of his previous jobs, Thompson has been adept at slipping away before any mud stuck. A former Newsnight colleague says: "Mark has always managed to move on and leave others to take the blame for the mistakes he leaves behind. He is very good at that - and at taking credit for his predecessor's ideas."

His political skills have taken him this far, but now that this most dedicated of schemers has got the job he's always wanted, what will he do now? Beyond his mantra about public service broadcasting, it is hard to pin down precisely what Thompson believes in: his 2002 MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh International Television Festival was balanced to the point of dullness; when he was given the sensitive task of writing Birt's programme strategy review, Thompson offended nobody. Some believe that the capacity to see both sides of an argument is his greatest talent. Thompson thrived at the BBC under the leadership of both Birt and Dyke, but a few sceptics ask whether a man who can do that is entirely certain of his own identity.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On becoming editor of the 9 O'Clock News (1988)

"Only people with first-class Oxbridge degrees need apply to work on this programme - and it helps if you're Catholic." [Joke]

At the Royal Television Society Lecture, on BBC programmes (1997)

"Like home-made food."

On his plans to axe 'One Man and His Dog', when controller of BBC2 (1999)

"What I completely failed to realise was that, while people might not have wanted actually to watch the programme any more, they still wanted it to be there."

On Greg Dyke's BBC (2001)

"There are no sacred cows. This is one BBC. Greg Dyke's BBC."

On sex on Channel 4 (2003)

"Channel 4 has been guilty in the past of slightly cynical choices, like buying Temptation Island from Sky. That's not what Channel 4 was put on earth to do."

On whether he would leave Channel 4 (April 2004)

"I will turn down any approach from the BBC."

On why he changed his mind (May 2004)

"What made the difference for me between then and now was what Sonia Gandhi would call my inner voice. I felt, in the end, that it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity I could not pass up."

On (re)joining the BBC (2004)

"I'm incredibly proud and privileged to have been chosen. The BBC is the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world. It is a unique treasure that almost everyone has issues about, but in the end it's of colossal value."

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