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Mark Thompson: At the cutting edge

After his first year in charge, BBC director-general Mark Thompson is promising improvements in programming standards while implementing massive job cuts throughout the corporation. Raymond Snoddy sinks his teeth into the matter

The Pope and the General Election have been huge stories, but in the world of media in recent weeks there has been a quite different topic of conversation - the curious case of the director-general who bit a producer. The story of how Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, after reading the Daily Star horoscope, bit producer Anthony Massey on the arm 17 years ago was dismissed by the BBC last month as a bit of "high jinks" and "horseplay". But no proper explanation has ever been forthcoming of why it happened and there were also rumours at the time - circulating in the BBC - that Thompson once also vented his anger on a video editor by grabbing him by the throat.

The Pope and the General Election have been huge stories, but in the world of media in recent weeks there has been a quite different topic of conversation - the curious case of the director-general who bit a producer. The story of how Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, after reading the Daily Star horoscope, bit producer Anthony Massey on the arm 17 years ago was dismissed by the BBC last month as a bit of "high jinks" and "horseplay". But no proper explanation has ever been forthcoming of why it happened and there were also rumours at the time - circulating in the BBC - that Thompson once also vented his anger on a video editor by grabbing him by the throat.

As Thompson approaches the first anniversary of his appointment, he explains, for the first time, the extraordinary bite. "I was editor of the Nine O'Clock News with Massey, who was duty home intake editor," he says. "I asked him to send a crew to cover some story I wanted to do that night. He refused. I pretended to snap at him [Thompson makes a snapping gesture by way of demonstration]. Unbelievably, I connected with his arm."

You didn't mean to bite him? "Of course not," says the man who has spent most of his career working at the BBC; he spent more than two years running Channel 4.

Is there any truth in the rumour that he once tried to throttle a video editor who displeased him during his days in BBC News? "No" Thompson replies emphatically. None at all? "No. This was in the papers at the time when the famous biting thing happened." The BBC wrote to the papers last month saying that the "throttling" incident was false and defamatory, and warning them against repeating the untrue allegation.

"For what its worth," adds Thompson spontaneously, "I have never struck a colleague in anger or ever had a complaint made against me, or, even in some more general sense, had a complaint made against me for harassment. The famous biting was a ludicrous joke that went wrong years ago in the newsroom," he says, in a comment intended to draw a line under a bizarre incident and rumours that have resurfaced at this time of maximum controversy for the BBC director-general.

In the face of what some have chose to call biting job cuts, the staff of News 24, the BBC's continuous television news service, has started working to contract and staff unions at the BBC have begun balloting their members on the possibility of taking industrial action to back up their opposition to the compulsory redundancies. A 24-hour strike later next month, which could seriously disrupt live programmes, is seen as a distinct possibility. Greg Dyke, the former BBC director-general, weighed into the argument on Friday in a radio interview by speaking of "a climate of fear" at the BBC and adding that if he had still been at the Corporation, he would not be "making 15 per cent of the staff redundant. It's not necessary".

Thompson has explained his plans in detail in staff presentations and made speeches outlining his strategy, but there is still a strong sense of puzzlement among many people at the BBC.

The big question that is being asked time and time again is, "Why?" How come the director-general is promising more programmes and higher-quality programmes, while at the same time planning to get rid of more than 2,000 production staff members - the very people who make the programmes? All departments face budgets that are now likely to average around 13.5 per cent during the next three years, rather than the initial target of 15 per cent. "The cuts have come before the vision," a hard-pressed television executive admits. "Shouldn't it be the other way round?"

Thompson says: "The BBC, whichever way you cut it, faces very big challenges, but also opportunities, over the next 10 years. The Green Paper [on the future of the Corporation] lays out an agenda for the BBC, which includes building digital Britain, as well as increasing quality and reducing repeats." He believes that the BBC can play a similar kind of leadership role in the second phase of the digital revolution - taking the country fully digital by 2012 - as it did in the first phase by launching new digital services such as News 24, BBC Three and BBC Four.

The BBC he inherited after his appointment on May 21, Thompson explains, was already facing an additional £155m in savings during the next two years under previous agreements with the Government. Indeed, departments had already been told that they were likely to be set targets to save between 5 per cent and 6 per cent during that period.

In the past few years, the Corporation's licence fee has been linked to inflation plus 1.5 per cent a year, and lots of new services launched. "The reality is that very few people outside the BBC and, I have to say, not many people inside the BBC felt that value for money had been particularly a priority over the last few years," says Thompson. The remark could be taken as a side-swipe at his big-spending predecessor Dyke, although he insists that he is not really criticising anybody.

The choice, he says he faced, was to go for the £155m savings target over 18 months to two years and then embark on a second wave of cuts to pay for the new programming the Government expects. Then there was the likelihood of having to make yet further cuts if the BBC receives a "challenging" licence fee settlement for the year 2007 and beyond.

The Green Paper backed the basic structure of the BBC and proposed a new 10-year Royal Charter, but said nothing about what the size of the licence fee should be. That is a matter for debate this summer and autumn.

"So, we decided to look, in as tough-minded a way as we could, at every aspect of what the BBC does to see whether we could really address the value-for-money issue in one go ourselves, before the Government and others started looking at it and started dictating what we might do," says Thompson.

The reality the process has produced includes a £320m-savings target over three years, with 2,500 posts going in professional services, such as human resources and finance - half from redundancies and half to be sourced outside the BBC.

Significant parts of the BBC, such as sport, children's broadcasting and a large part of Radio Five Live will move to Manchester to make the Corporation less metropolitan.

Last week, the BBC said 18 organisations had expressed interest as the sale of BBC Broadcast - the subsidiary specialising in transmitting and promoting digital services - gets under way, and BBC Resources, which brings together everything from studios and outside broadcasts to the camera crew, is to be sold in some form.

But it is the programme-making cuts which have caused most controversy. The BBC's factual and learning departments, for example, are to lose 424 posts, or 21 per cent, while news is losing 420 posts, or 12 per cent, of staff members, and the Nations and Regions departments of the BBC will have to lose 735 posts.

Thompson says he has talked to a lot of people in the private and public sector, and believes that the BBC, like any other organisation, should expect to make "a number of per cent" of productivity savings every year without sacrificing quality.

But the Thompson proposals were not initially accepted by the BBC governors, who asked that they should be independently verified. "They always accepted from the outset the philosophy and the framework of the plan, but they wanted to satisfy themselves that the value for money plans made sense in detail," says Thompson.

PA Consulting was called in, and, according to Thompson, verified that the plans were "sensible and achievable", and struck roughly the right balance between "ambition and achievability". "We were looking to make sure that the plans went far enough, but also that they didn't go too far," Thompson insists. The BBC unions are now trying to get access to the background papers behind the governors' decision under the Freedom of Information Act, as part of their campaign against enforced cuts.

The BBC director-general argues that, over the decades, but particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, the BBC has progressively looked for savings in its existing services to help pay for new services. Despite the launch of an unprecedented number of new digital channels, Thompson says the overall head count of the BBC still went down. "As we release money and begin to invest it in new services there may well be some new posts created," Thompson forecasts.

"The object is not to get the maximum number of job losses. If we can achieve everything we need to achieve with fewer job losses, no one will be happier than me," he says.

The numbers could come down, but this is unlikely to happen before the third year of the cuts, and only if there is a good match between the skills of those losing their jobs then and new services being launched. The plans to start broadcasting high-definition television, for example, are unlikely to help people losing their jobs in the London newsroom. Thompson is, nevertheless, convinced that he has got things round the right way to make absolutely sure the savings can be achieved before launching new services.

"It is difficult for BBC staff to believe in jam tomorrow when what they feel is pain today - that I accept in human terms is difficult," says Thompson, who presided over a 30 per cent staff cut at Channel 4. "It is difficult to believe in future investment when what you see in front of you is job losses. It would be a lot easier for me if I had one popular thing after another to say to BBC staff."

The BBC can at least start pointing at some of the jam being spread already. Last week, the BBC said it was investing an extra £61m in improving the quality of its television, radio and online services, with £21m being earmarked for television.

The BBC director-general claims he has not encountered personal antagonism as a result of his radical vision, although he admits he has been involved in a number of "feisty conversations about what has been going on". He is talking in his rather spartan office in the BBC's Media Village at White City. The only book in sight on his coffee table is Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, a rather dark novel with a brutal murder and rainstorms of fish falling from the sky.

The previous visitor to his glass cubicle was Jane Root, the former controller of BBC2 now working for Discovery Communications in the US. Thompson laughs away any significance in the meeting and simply says they are old friends. He emphasises that the BBC is now launching a nine-month study with its top creative staff to produce a new creative vision for the future. But isn't that another example of putting the cart before the horse - first the cuts and then the creative vision?

"Of course, there are always possible reasons for delay and putting off the evil moment," says Thompson. "My judgement was that we should do everything we could to get the BBC ready for the next Charter by the time the Charter started (2007), and although this has meant a difficult and unstable time at the BBC without any question, I thought it was best to get, in my view, an unavoidable process and plans under way."

It is clear that his experience of "the cold winds of change" in the private sector at Channel 4 has changed how Thompson approaches things. Tougher as a result? "Possibly yes, but also I have a strong sense that the future is arriving pretty quickly now and if things need to happen, they need to happen pretty quickly," he replies.

Some staff members complain that too much of the BBC's resources are now being diverted away from mainstream programme-making and into areas such as online archives, empowerment websites and music-review charts. Thompson will have none of it and insists that the BBC has to respond to the changing needs of its audience.

"There were plenty of people in the BBC in the 1990s saying, 'What's all this about the web? What are we doing?'," he says. "If right now we were a BBC without the web, without children's networks, without News 24, I think we would be scuppered actually. I really do."

What about complaints that it is largely "the workers" at the BBC that are having to absorb most of the pain, and management has emerged largely unscathed? "Where we can, we are trying to ... streamline the management system. We have merged the strategy and policy departments. I expect significant reductions in the layers and structures of the BBC as part of this process, and that means fewer managers."

In fact, for a variety of reasons, there has been considerable change at the top of the BBC, partly caused by moves to the private sector by such people as BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey and now the director of sport Peter Salmon.

Despite an obviously demanding year for the new BBC director-general, which could get tougher still, Thompson is very optimistic about the state of BBC programme-making.

The award-winning Ten O'Clock News is, he believes, as good as the BBC's main evening news bulletin has ever been. News 24 has "come of age" and is consistently getting higher audiences than Sky News for the first time. Heggessey had begun to redefine "what mass audience public service might look like", with hits such as Strictly Come Dancing.

Thompson also underlines the success of BBC Three shows such as Little Britain and Casanova, which then go on to BBC1 or BBC2, and points with pleasure to a new BBC Four satire on the way. The Thick of It is a political sitcom taking a mordant look at the world of Whitehall and will definitely not be shown this side of the General Election.

Although it is undoubtedly been a difficult year for Thompson, he has no regrets about deciding to leave Channel 4 for the BBC. "It feels like the right decision to me, although it has been a very tough year for everyone and quite a tough year for me, actually," he says. "I am sure it was the right thing for me to do. I do believe in a really strong and independent BBC in the long term and I think there is a lot I can do to help create that."

Not all the 6,000 BBC staff he has quite deliberately bitten hard during the past few months would necessarily have such a sanguine view.