Tim Luckhurst: It's time for an outstanding Director-General to bow out

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The Independent Online

Mark Thompson cares as deeply about the BBC as Abraham Lincoln did about the United States of America.

His commitment to Britain's unique model of public service broadcasting is absolute. An excellent journalist himself, Thompson has done much to instil his values in a generation of BBC journalists. So it is a measure of how far his reputation has fallen that his own tribe, the BBC's top journalists, are among those questioning his performance as DG.

Thompson will resent those questions. He is sensitive as well as brilliant. Disloyalty pains him. It will hurt acutely now because he and his team feel they have just achieved a signal victory. For them, the reduced but secure funding of the BBC, won during the Comprehensive Spending Review, is the best deal available. The Director-General's internal critics criticise it. Sincere friends outside the corporation warn that it threatens a constitutional revolution. Nobody offers a plausible alternative.

So would it be absurd for Thompson to stand aside now? Surely not. There comes a time in every leader's career when the confidence upon which leadership depends is no longer secure. Mark Thompson has lost the confidence of key colleagues. The personal pique he advertised by signing the letter calling for News Corporation's bid for BSkyB to be referred to Ofcom is not his only recent error of judgment.

He infuriated colleagues by confessing that he thinks BBC journalists displayed "massive left-wing bias" in the 1980s. His visit to Downing Street to discuss coverage of the Government's spending cuts was foolish and his excuse, that the meeting was "not unusual in any respect", was worse.

His predecessors have not shown prime ministers details of the BBC's plans for reporting controversial policies. Since John Reith wobbled during the General Strike of 1926, BBC directors-general have tried to avoid the impression that they listen too willingly to ministers.

After six years during which his salary has become a topic for ribald jokes, and school children know that he earns more than any comparable public servant, the question facing Mark Thompson is basic. Nobody doubts his intellectual prowess or his willingness to serve. In 2004, most of his peers considered him ideal for the job. Now many who care deeply about the BBC's role in British life ask if someone else might lead the corporation better through the storms ahead.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent

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