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.
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism