Exclusive NS interview: BBC director general

Mark Thompson on bias, Murdoch & Son, Tony Blair and his own future.

The BBC director general, Mark Thompson, has said that "impartiality" is "going up and up the agenda" at the corporation in what he described as a "post-Hutton change", referring to the report into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly. But Thompson added that in past decades the BBC had a "massive bias to the left", "struggled with impartiality" and was "mystified" by Thatcherism.

The unusually frank comments were in his first major interview, with me, after his make-or-break MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh at the weekend. The exclusive New Statesman interview features in this week's magazine, out tomorrow, and will be published on the website in due course.

In it, Thompson also admits that relations with the New Labour government in the latter part of the "Blair and Brown years" were "tetchy", though he won't be drawn on whether New Labour got too close to the Murdochs. He does, however, renew his challenge for the News Corp empire to invest more in British programming and hits out at the vested interests of the BBC's critics, saying "there is something different and straightforwardly commercial about pressure in recent years".

Referring to cost-cutting in advance of licence-fee negotiations with the new, Conservative-led government, Thompson concedes that the BBC must "do more", adding that the corporation "is owned and paid for by the British public, many of whom are living on small incomes. The licence fee is a significant expense, and it is very important that every penny of the it is spent wisely."

But he stresses: "At the same time, you know, most people outside the UK and probably most people inside the UK want the BBC to be the world's greatest and best broadcaster. It costs us billions of pounds to be that."

Intriguingly, Thompson strikes an optimistic note about the forthcoming licence-fee deal, expected before the 2012 Olympics, saying he is looking forward to "constructive and businesslike" talks. He adds that although many presume Labour would have offered a better deal, he is "not so sure". And of his own future as BBC boss, he insists: "I feel there is a lot I have set motoring at the BBC and that I want to see through."

Yet he also hints that he is looking forward to a return to the "quiet life" he enjoyed before the job, which he took up in June 2004.

Below are selected quotations from the interview:

On bias:

"In the BBC I joined 30 years ago [as a production trainee, in 1979], there was, in much of current affairs, in terms of people's personal politics, which were quite vocal, a massive bias to the left. The organisation did struggle then with impartiality. And journalistically [staff] were quite mystified, I think, by the early years of Thatcher. Now it is a completely different generation . . . And we have an honourable tradition of journalists from the right. It is a broader church.

"The BBC is not a campaigning organisation and can't be, and actually the truth is that sometimes our dispassionate flavour of broadcasting frustrates people who have got very, very strong views, because they want more red meat. Often that plays as bias. People think: 'Why can't they come out and say they are bastards?' And that can play out on left and right."

". . . we are becoming increasingly tough-minded about the concept of impartiality. In a sense, we are becoming more explicit . . . That is a post-Hutton change in the organisation. Impartiality is going up and up the agenda."

On BBC values and faith:

"I do think the BBC is very much -- sometimes, frankly, almost frighteningly so -- a values-driven organisation. People's sense of what's right and wrong, and justice, are incredible parts of what motivates people to join and I'm part of that. And for me that's connected with my religious faith. But the key thing is: you don't have to be a Catholic."

On the BBC's enemies:

"I'm not suggesting for a moment there is a 'vast right-wing conspiracy'. There is a purist free-market debate that has been going for 20 years and still goes on, but it is a reasonable debate to have. It is a gentlemanly theoretical discussion. [However,] I think there is something different and straightforwardly commercial about pressure in recent years."

On BBC staff expense:

"The BBC is owned and paid for by the British public, many of whom are living on small incomes. The licence fee is a significant expense, and it is very important that every penny of it is spent wisely. At the same time, you know, most people outside the UK and probably most people inside the UK want the BBC to be the world's greatest and best broadcaster. It costs us billions of pounds to be that."

On New Labour:

"The last few years, the Blair-Brown years, essentially post-Hutton [the report by Lord Hutton into Dr David Kelly's death], were quite tetchy, quite tetchy between the government and the BBC."

On the licence fee:

"What's fascinating is -- and they [the government] have yet to reveal their hand -- but the question of how different would the debate be had Labour won is an interesting one . . . There will be an open conversation some time next year. It is a time for realism. We haven't yet taken a view. We'll go into that recognising public support but with a sense of realism."

On his own future:

"I'm enjoying being director general of the BBC and history suggests it may be up to other people to decide when I go . . . I am going to be absolutely there. We have a governing body, the BBC Trust, and I am employed by them at their disposal. But I feel there is a lot I have set motoring at the BBC and that I want to see through."

"The nature of journalism today is that it is naturally quite personal, but actually I used to be chief executive of Channel 4, and had a relatively quiet life. If I move on from this job, I'll have quite a quiet life."

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.