Leading article: Not much of a loss for the BBC

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It may be pure coincidence, but there is much in common in the decisions of both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Director-General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, to announce their departures within days of each other.

Both have headed, with some contention, national institutions of high profile and central importance. Both have been asked to do the virtually impossible: to run a major organisation during a time of crisis, while satisfying public demands and the demands of political masters with quite contradictory expectations. This, though, is where the similarities end. Mr Thompson is leaving his post without any sense that he managed to transcend his limitations.

The outgoing Director-General has had all the benefits of heading an organisation of unparalleled national and international standing – an organisation, moreover, which operates in a business which, while declining in traditional terms, is still expanding fast, thanks to new technologies. And, in fairness, Mr Thompson has had some successes. He reached a sensible licence fee settlement with a government by no means sympathetic to the Corporation, for example. He has also seen off demands from many Conservative MPs, as well as competing media groups, that the BBC be cut back to a purely public broadcasting role.

Such achievements came from an approach that entailed keeping his head down, cutting overheads, and bending to the political wind as and when necessary. But it has been at the cost of poor morale among BBC staff and has left him with a reputation for being more corporate man than spirited defender of independent broadcasting.

Mr Thompson is right to step down this autumn, shortly after the Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. With the Corporation facing the huge challenge of negotiating a new Charter in 2016, it needs to be led by a Director-General with a real strategic grasp, a distinctive public face and an ability to manage the politics. Whoever takes over will need to show more flair, more backbone and greater strength of character. Finding such a successor will not be easy.