Mark Thompson: The vision thing

He once bolted for the lift when questioned on his vision for the BBC, but the new director-general is taking up a post he has coveted for years. The future of the licence fee and the phasing out of analogue are already on his desk, but he comes to the job equipped with 25 years' experience in television, the confidence to make U-turns and the endorsement of BBC staff
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The Independent Online

Mark Thompson, newly appointed director-general of the BBC, is genuinely likeable and, unusually for a powerful television executive, approachable. But he is an astute politician, a fact that accounts for his relentless rise to the most powerful job in British broadcasting.

Mark Thompson, newly appointed director-general of the BBC, is genuinely likeable and, unusually for a powerful television executive, approachable. But he is an astute politician, a fact that accounts for his relentless rise to the most powerful job in British broadcasting.

Three years ago, he invited me to a meeting in his spartan BBC office - no computer on the desk, just a large empty boardroom-style table, two sofas and two or three flat-screen TVs. He said he occasionally used a laptop on the train travelling to and from work to catch up on paperwork.

I was editor of the trade magazine Broadcast at the time and having trouble pinning down the then director-general Greg Dyke to any kind of regular contact with the magazine. Thompson, as director of BBC television, offered himself as an ally before asking me discreetly, halfway through our conversation, what the mood was among independent producers.

The job of Channel 4 chief executive was vacant, and he was clearly probing for information that would be useful in his application. He's a careerist at heart and this week landed the job he'd become increasingly convinced was rightfully his.

As a tall, fiercely clever man, Thompson is physically and intellectually used to being in charge. He doesn't worry about wielding power, as was shown when he axed Brookside - after going on the record to voice his "clear and unambiguous long-term commitment" to the soap.

It is difficult to tell whether Thompson speaks with genuine candour or with an eye on how his comments might play with his audience. He's even changed his appearance to suit his audience. Back in 2002 he gave his first speech as Channel 4 chief executive with a new beard. He also began wearing black turtlenecks - all very Channel 4 or, just possibly, connected with his new-found passion of flying in Maine. Either way, he was back in a tweed jacket on Friday at his BBC welcome press conference, and no doubt the beard will vanish soon.

Friends will be lobbying for the removal of the beard, although his glamorous American wife Jane (an expert on Mary Shelley) might have the final say - the two are often seen together at industry dos. Thompson, a father of three, commutes daily from the family home in Oxford, preferring to make it home at night rather than hang out with media gossips in London watering holes.

Colleagues point out how articulate he is, despite Gordon Brown-like gaps in his speech. Most find him relaxed and congenial - characteristics the BBC's leadership clearly needs in the aftermath of gregarious Greg Dyke's departure.

It was genuinely bad timing for Thompson that the top job at the BBC came up just two years after his move to Channel 4. When he got the C4 job he claimed he was going to be there "for many years", and when Thompson says something, he means it. At least, he does at the time he says it.

But no one could have predicted Lord Hutton's devastating attack on the BBC and the subsequent resignations of Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies. What's more, Thompson can digest another's point of view, then come back the next day and offer it up as if that had been his opinion all along. He has a strong, if Jesuitically flexible, sense of what's morally right.

In his relatively short stint at Channel 4, Thompson found its board supportive and loyal - traits which this practising Roman Catholic who attends a notably traditional, Latin-mass church - was reluctant to betray. Hence his public insistence that he would not go after the director-general's job, even saying he would "turn down any approach" from the BBC. But he was sitting next to Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson at the time, at last month's launch of the channel's 2003 financial results. He'd been pushed into a difficult spot by journalists' questioning.

Since he rose to the highest ranks of the BBC in the mid-1990s as controller of BBC2, Thompson has been cut out to be director-general and he knows it. Even before he got the C4 job, he saw that a stint working outside the corporation would polish his CV to the point of perfection for that post.

Thompson, born in July 1957, is an establishment figure, educated at Stonyhurst and Merton College, Oxford before joining the BBC as a trainee in 1979. After stints on Watchdog and Newsnight, he became editor of the Nine O'Clock News aged only 30.

His career then entered a series of two-year leaps to ever dizzier heights that earmarked him as a BBC high flyer. He edited Panorama from 1990; in 1992 he became head of features; in 1994 he was head of BBC factual programming responsible for Ready Steady Cook, The House and Modern Times.

In 1996 he became controller of BBC2 where he made perhaps the biggest impression on the corporation he now runs, commissioning The League of Gentlemen, The Royle Family and Our Mutual Friend. For someone with a news background, this showed a surprising knack with other TV genres.

Then came a period in the relative wilderness, as director of nations and regions, where Thompson's dubious legacy includes the replacement of London radio station GLR with London Live. But the role was a proving ground for his public service credentials and, in 2000, newly installed director-general Dyke named Thompson as his second-in-command.

Two years later he was off to Channel 4 where he has ticked another box on his skills list: business acumen. Thompson inherited losses of £20m and last month announced a 175 per cent increase in profits to £45m. He has cut costs (and 200 jobs) by curbing profligate film and digital TV policies, earning opprobrium and credit in almost equal measure for closing FilmFour and ending the foolish Attheraces venture.

But, creatively, Channel 4's turnaround is half complete at best. Thompson poached Kevin Lygo from rival channel Five to become C4's director of programmes, securing the "best talent available" and nobbling its closest competition in one move. In recent months Thompson's public noises have been about the long-term future of Channel 4. He was considering turning the broadcaster into a trust and merging it with Five. Cynics now see this as another tactic to demonstrate his strategic thinking.

He made a similarly bold gesture four years ago when he spoke for the BBC at a Canadian TV festival. He sketched out a vision of the BBC channels catering to niche audiences so that BBC1 would become a pure entertainment outlet while BBC4 broadcast the arts. He guessed the usual UK journalists wouldn't be present to press him on the detail afterwards, but when one trade journalist did try to question him he escaped into a lift.

That vision fed into Dyke's MacTaggart speech in Edinburgh later that summer, announcing the launch of BBC3 and BBC4. When he really thought about it, it was inconceivable that the admirably serious-minded and purposeful Thompson wouldn't return to the corporation to continue honing the strategy. Among his hobbies are walking and making fresh pasta. In both, as in his career, he shows he doesn't mind the long haul.

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