Shaken and stirred

It's been a year since Mark Thompson took over the BBC. Will Wyatt , former number two at the corporation, analyses the tough measures that have been put in place since then

When Mark Thompson took over as the 14th director-general of the BBC, it was, gushed the house magazine Ariel, "the moment to fulfil his destiny". I doubt if he saw destiny bringing him face to face with a strike at the end of his first year but it would not have made a whit of difference.

When Mark Thompson took over as the 14th director-general of the BBC, it was, gushed the house magazine Ariel, "the moment to fulfil his destiny". I doubt if he saw destiny bringing him face to face with a strike at the end of his first year but it would not have made a whit of difference.

Thompson is a man with a long view. Robert Herrick might have had him in mind when he wrote: "Attempt the end and never stand to doubt; Nothing's so hard that search will find it out." And unlike his predecessor he knew that the job was not a popularity contest.

If Thompson pauses to look back on his first year, which he probably won't, he could congratulate himself on a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the corporation. He found it reeling after the Hutton report, ill-prepared for the decisions about its future and with the staff on an absurd grief trip after Greg Dyke's sacking.

He took the place by the lapels, shook it back to its senses and began to tackle all the really difficult things quickly. He acted strategically rather than viscerally, deciding issues on principle rather than pragmatism.

The BBC's preparations for securing a new charter were in a mess when Dyke left. Good work was done in the interim regime but it was Thompson who grabbed the document, rewrote it, added new ideas and began making the case outside. "Building Public Value" outlined a clear position for the BBC in the fully digital world, one anchored in values of public service and high quality.

Thompson convinced the Government that he was serious about self-reform. The Green Paper promised a 10-year charter and a continuing licence fee. It revealed that the BBC had won the argument on top-slicing the licence fee and had seen off the threat of a 50 per cent quota for independent production. The latter had looked probable after the Dyke regime's simple-minded behaviour towards the independent sector. Thompson has demonstrated that he understands that public money should be spent on securing the best programmes wherever they come from.

The cause of the current industrial unrest is the director-general's plan to find savings of £355m in order to make more programmes and invest in new services: two-thirds of the money is targeted for new media. There is an issue of principle here, too, a duty to handle licence payers' money with the greatest possible efficiency.

Savings and the accompanying job cuts are always hard for staff, this time especially so after a jamboree era when the place was on a mission to spend. What feels like a handbrake turn is in reality simply a necessary correction. Thirteen per cent savings over three years is about half the saving achieved in a similar period a decade or so ago and, for all the union rhetoric, will merely bring the BBC's headcount back to where it was at the end of the 1990s.

Could Thompson have handled this differently, adopted a softly softly approach? It sounds tempting and several of his colleagues would have preferred that, but by laying his whole plan on the table he has behaved straightforwardly. It is also practical, for it is hard to push through ambitious savings plans, and by raising the profile the big bang approach makes success more likely. There is also the time factor. The BBC wants to stick with agreements and work through the recognised unions, probably a two-year process, so Thompson had to get on with it.

He now has a long haul in front of him and his team to make sure that the savings are real and that both staff and the wider world can see the benefit of the reinvestment when it comes. Governors, government and critics will be watching.

The relationship between the director-general and the governors has changed following Michael Grade's reforms of BBC governance. They will change further if the Green Paper proposals for even more separation of the executive and the new trustees are carried through in the new charter.

So far Thompson has managed the new relationship well. He is less powerful than his predecessors but appears to value, even relish, the better informed and more rigorous questioning and review of his plans.

He was Grade's man; they came in more or less together and get on. But the new structure has not yet been tested in a crisis.

When it is, Thompson, who is formidable in argument and decides quickly and firmly, will need to read the politics with care.

He will also need the support of his team. He has forged a strong relationship with Mark Byford, the disappointed former acting director-general, whom Thompson has put in charge of all the BBC's journalism and whom he uses as a trusted sounding board. By slimming down the unmanageably large executive board he inherited, Thompson inevitably bruised feelings.

I suspect that governors and his senior colleagues will be looking for an increasingly collegiate management style now that he has imposed his authority on the organisation and set a course. It will help him to get things done.

The rest of us viewers, listeners and new media users will be most interested in the output, its independence and its quality. On the former Thompson and Byford led a post-Hutton BBC to a creditable performance through the election campaign.

The interviews with party leaders may be becoming a bit of a turn but it was plain that no one had removed the horseshoes from interviewers' boxing gloves. What is more, there have been fewer more devastating critiques of governmental style than the current comedy The Thick of It. A speedy transfer from BBC4 to BBC2 will confirm robust intentions.

It is equally important that the corporation does not confuse independence with "seeing off" critics. It needs to take complaints of, say, "institutional leftism" as an opportunity for serious self-questioning.

Thompson has under way a wide-ranging review of service and programme strategy and has run up the flag of excellence, value to the public and big projects (at least that's what I take "high-profile cultural interventions" to mean.)

"We shall be waiting for the results and hoping that he has taken to heart the words of one of his favourite authors, Matthew Arnold, whose words on culture could equally well describe an ambition for the BBC: "The acquainting of ourselves of the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit."

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