Is that enough to satisfy you, Alastair?

Let's hope the appointment of a new DG can finally bury the Gilligan affair
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The Independent Online

What started at 6.07 on that infamous morning when Andrew Gilligan sat on the edge of his bed and broadcast to BBC Radio 4's Today audience should have ended on Friday with the appointment of Mark Thompson as director-general of the corporation. The authenticity of the "45-minute" claim and what the Government knew before it entered the public domain has now led to the unveiling of the new DG. The curtain is down on Act I (it seems more like Act IX) of the BBC's own "Play for Today".

Gilligan has gone. Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, has gone. Greg Dyke, the previous DG, has gone. Off air, Piers Morgan has gone too. The new BBC team is in place. Chairman Michael Grade and director-general Mark Thompson. Will that do, Alastair? Will that do, my Lord Hutton? Will that do Geoff Hoon, Jack Straw, Tony Blair? We must hope that Thompson is suitably grateful to all these dramatis personae, for without them he would not have had the job he holds today, the one he told the world he had no intention of seeking.

Spare, momentarily, a thought for poor Mark Byford, the loyal fall guy. Thrust into that dreadful role of acting-DG (beware any jobs carrying the adjective "deputy" or "acting" - Byford had both, at the same time) he took the helm when most people on the bridge were moving in the opposite direction. At the moment of greatest crisis he had to say the right things, calm the storm that raged in and around the BBC and do what the politicians, some of the press, and some of the public insisted should be done. All at once, he had to eat humble pie, shore up the BBC, restore morale and conduct inquiries. Or were they disciplinary procedures?

A man without obvious charisma, Byford had to handle the crisis that management thrust upon him. He did it all with obvious integrity and decency - a role that made it virtually certain he would not end up with the real job. And he wanted it a lot. Fate, or Andrew Gilligan, or Lord Hutton, dealt him a poor hand.

"This demonstrates that you shouldn't be a BBC lifer if you want to be director-general," said David Elstein, former chief executive of channel Five, after Thompson's appointment. Actually Thompson himself wasn't far away from that description. From a graduate traineeship following his Oxford first in 1979 until 2001 he was just that and was famed for knowing how to play BBC politics. He moved effortlessly through the most significant jobs, editing the 9 O'Clock News and Panorama, controlling BBC2, running all of television. But he, just, fulfilled the Elstein test by leaving the BBC in 2001 to run Channel 4. Did he do that as a BBC career move, to position himself for what became his last Friday? Certainly his protestations over the past month of his determination to remain at Channel 4 and rebuff any approach from the BBC, have about them something of the football club chairman and declarations of confidence in the manager.

What seems indisputable is that Thompson is a man of great talent, at both the programming and management ends of the broadcasting business. He takes over the job with an extraordinarily unanimous vote of approval from the major figures in the industry. He cannot be without enemies, but they are certainly hiding this weekend.

Of course what the BBC's staff desperately need is to cheer up, to regain confidence and regroup around a leader they respect and like. Michael Grade, the new chairman, knows that, and in just a few days he has struck the right tone. Greg Dyke brought that spirit to the BBC when it felt overwhelmed by the cold and clinical managerial style of John Birt. But Dyke took amid issues which were essentially internal and to do with style of leadership. Thompson takes over at a time when the external forces dominate and have led to an internal crisis in morale.

Thompson needs to say very clearly that he was not at the BBC when the Gilligan affair happened; he was no part of that. He may have views about the absurd Hutton report but he does not need to reopen that one. He can leave the role of the governors to Grade, who will clearly make significant and necessary adjustments. His interview with Grade will obviously have covered that ground and brought agreement between the two.

Most importantly, Thompson needs to remove the word defensive from the BBC's vocabulary. It has made mistakes, or one big mistake, but that has been exaggerated, distorted and raised to a national issue way beyond its desert. Thompson will say that that is over, and that he would not be in this job if it wasn't. It is time to rally support from the viewing public, which is mostly eager to provide it. Thompson must believe, but probably not say, that the BBC, despite everything, is vastly more popular and, more importantly, respected, than the Government, and that when it says its resistance to political interference is utterly crucial the choruses of "right on" would drown a Cup Final crowd.

He must of course handle the Government not so much delicately as with real political sophistication.

And Thompson will remember to that when most of the public talk about the BBC, they are talking about BBC programmes, and that is how they judge the BBC. Thompson has shown, over the years, a preparedness to engage in debate. He will do that internally and externally. Clearly the Grade-Thompson ticket is a unity ticket, and a forward-looking one. That's enough Gilligangate. It's time to move on.

Overheard on the Paris metro: "What a great paper this Times of London is. It tells it like it is, the truth. Not what we usually hear about British papers."

Overheard in the middle of Madrid: "I shall stop buying this strange British paper, The Daily Telegraph. It seems to have no judgement. They cannot really believe that London is fit to host the Olympics."

A curious conflict between the two largest-selling quality newspapers. After the preliminary knock-out round of the contest to host the 2012 Games, The Times told its readers: "London bid runs into road block." While the Telegraph said: "London march on with confidence." Same story; two takes.

Is this something to do with knowing your readers? I doubt it. More some Byzantine agenda that will be lost on readers of both papers. We are told the public mood is 70-80 per cent behind the bid, which puts the Telegraph - unofficial cheerleaders for London 2012 - more in touch.

Does The Times have a headline ready for July next year? "Celebrations as Britain welcomes Madrid success".

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


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