Entertainment & Arts

Mark Thompson: A hard act to follow

Mark Thompson
Image caption Mark Thompson was the BBC's director general for eight years

Mark Thompson leaves the BBC on a high, following its highly praised coverage of the Olympics.

London 2012 not only brought the corporation huge audiences on TV, mobile and the web, but also the highest public appreciation levels ever seen by the pollsters Ipsos-Mori.

The outgoing director general's appointment to the top job at the New York Times (NYT) is widely seen as a tribute to his BBC achievements.

Like the corporation, the NYT is a global news group with a high reputation. Its boss praised Mr Thompson, saying his "leadership at the BBC had helped it to extend its trusted brand identity into new digital products and services".

The Financial Times said the fact the BBC faced the future "with some certainty and relatively unscathed by the revolution in media [which had] hamstrung fellow broadcasters and the UK press" was "no small feat" and could be laid fairly at Mr Thompson's door.

All this makes him a hard act to follow - but not everyone is a fan.

Image caption George Entwistle will be paid around two thirds of what Mark Thompson received

At the recent TUC conference he was strongly criticised by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which called for the last TV licence fee deal to be ripped up by his successor.

"As George Entwistle takes up his post as director general of the BBC, the corporation faces 2,000 job losses, following 7,000 job cuts since 2004," it said.

"It is all the fault of Mark Thompson, the previous DG, who agreed to a licence fee freeze while allowing the BBC's coffers to be plundered to pay for projects including the roll-out of superfast broadband and the funding of the World Service."

That view is a common one inside the BBC. Critics say one of Mr Thompson's weaknesses is that he never managed to carry the staff with him.

One of Mr Entwistle's challenges will be to raise staff morale - and keep programme standards high - while pursuing the cost-cutting programme that is already in train.

Many employees were angered not just by the job and budget cuts, and the reductions in their pensions, but by the high pay and rewards of senior BBC executives, led by Mr Thompson himself. These were also widely criticised outside the BBC.

By the time management responded, cutting a swathe of senior posts and reducing top salaries, it was too little, too late. Mr Entwistle will be paid around two thirds of Mr Thompson's current £671,000 salary.

Some staff resented the BBC's decision to move large departments and thousands of jobs to Salford in the north of England - a scheme introduced by the previous director general Greg Dyke who, ironically, was much more popular with BBC staff.

Image caption Sherlock was one of the recent successful BBC shows to be a hit with critics and audiences

Facing budget cuts in their own departments, many were unwilling to be mollified by the success of the iPlayer - and other BBC digital successes.

Nor were they appeased by the public acclaim for programmes as wide-ranging as Sherlock, Call the Midwife, The Thick of It, Frozen Planet, Rev, Panorama's Undercover Care, The Choir, Wonders of the Universe, A History of the World in 100 Objects, the Proms and Parade's End.

Some - both inside and outside the BBC - wanted Mr Thompson to cut whole services rather than sharing the pain (he and BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten reject the term "salami-slicing") across the board.

Yet when the axe was poised for digital radio station BBC 6 Music, a listeners' protest campaign led to its reprieve by the BBC Trust.

Mr Thompson's achievements were arguably better recognised in parts of the press.

When he announced he was stepping down after eight years - the longest term of any director general for three decades - The Guardian said he had "steered the BBC through a storm which might have wrecked it", losing no fundamental services, channels or orchestras.

Far from criticising the last licence fee settlement, as the NUJ did, the newspaper said he had "secured the licence fee at a time of unprecedented public spending cuts".

The FT said one achievement of the deal was that he "rebuffed the government's plans to make the BBC pay for the ever-growing benefit by which the over-75s get free television licences."

Image caption Thompson said the BBC had weathered such "lively storms" as the Ross-Brand phone-in scandal

Others said the swiftly agreed settlement took the BBC out of the firing line of Conservative politicians and media competitors, sparing it from the intended two-year debate over the scope and scale of the BBC.

That is something Mr Entwistle may expect to face when he prepares to fight for the next licence fee settlement.

Media commentator Steve Hewlett wrote: "The BBC has transitioned extraordinarily well into the digital age. It has the most successful suite of digital channels covering news, children's programming, arts and culture and youth of any of its broadcasting rivals.

"In terms of online content and access... the BBC is the UK market leader. And the venerable institution's underlying values - fairness, quality, impartiality - have been... enhanced in the process."

Even so, it has been a rocky ride. Under Mr Thompson the BBC weathered "a series of lively storms", as he conceded in an email to staff.

In 2007 and 2008, trust in programme-makers was severely dented by a succession of phone-in scandals which led Ofcom to impose substantial fines on the BBC.

The controller of Radio 2 resigned over the infamous broadcast of obscene phone messages by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

So did the controller of BBC One, over the equally infamous broadcast of misleading footage of The Queen in a promotion for a documentary.

Mr Thompson's own position looked precarious at times. As George Entwistle will be aware as he takes on one of the most demanding and high-profile posts in public life, it is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Mr Entwistle's background in news, as a former editor of Newsnight and head of TV current affairs, will stand him in good stead during the political and programme-related rows that will inevitably confront him.

He had a taste of it when the BBC's coverage of The Queen's Diamond Jubilee river pageant was widely criticised earlier this year.

And he is not short of advice.

Image caption Thompson has warned the next licence fee settlement could mean a loss of some BBC services

Last week Armando Iannucci, one of the BBC's most highly creative programme-makers, urged the BBC to stand up against its critics in politics and the press.

In his Bafta lecture, The Thick of It creator said that, after the Leveson Inquiry and the success of the Olympics, "the public will now never forgive anyone who meddles with British TV for political advantage or to further their own economic agenda".

"With a new director general, there couldn't be a better time to reset the board and signal that we're just not going to take that kind of interference any more."

In response, Mark Thompson might point to his own MacTaggart Lecture and several other speeches in which he criticised the Murdochs and argued the BBC's case - remarks not widely reported in the press.

He has already given his own piece of advice to his successor - and to politicians - in a final interview with the trade magazine Broadcast.

"The danger is that people don't realise how challenging these cuts are going to be," he said. "There are plenty of areas now, where once you've done this set of changes, I don't see there is further room for manoeuvre.

"One thing everyone has to confront is that a tough licence fee [in 2016] will mean the loss of services. I can't see any way around that, but we're getting very, very close to the edge of in many parts of the organisation."

That is Mr Entwistle's challenge.

More on this story

Around the BBC