Mark Thompson: “There was massive left-wing bias at the BBC”

Mark Thompson talks about political pressures, the need for budget cuts, and how his religion affects his role.

Mark Thompson, now to become president of the New York Times Company
Mark Thompson, now to become president of the New York Times Company. Photograph: Getty Images

My first conversation with Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC since 2004, takes place at a hotel restaurant in Edinburgh. It is the morning after his widely reported MacTaggart Lecture, in which he offered a passionate defence of the BBC and of the principle of public service broadcasting in an age of public spending cuts and extreme austerity.

“Don't get it from here," he instructs an aide, referring to the hotel's coffee. "This is the new age of cuts, you know," he explains, gesturing at the less-than-grand surroundings. "By the way, the Secretary of State [Jeremy Hunt at Culture] is staying here, too." Do the two men get on? "Oh yeah."

Thompson is in the middle of the fight of his long broadcasting career as he attempts to persuade the many critics of the BBC - including some in the coalition government - that the corporation should continue to receive generous funding through the licence fee. The new settlement will be negotiated between the BBC and the government, and though Thompson points out that the latter has yet to show its hand, Hunt has already criticised "outrageous waste" at the BBC, such as lavish spending on programme budgets and staff expenses.

The BBC could be described as its own worst enemy; its past profligacy makes it harder to defend the licence fee even among those who believe in it. "Look," he says, "you can't run a public institution in the UK and not think quite hard about the current state of the public finances, and the climate [of] how you are funded. Can the BBC tighten its belt further? Yes it can. Do I never wander round the BBC without . . . thinking it can do better? No. But genuinely, I worked at Channel 4 [as chief executive, from 2002 to 2004], and I'm very familiar with the way other broadcasting companies work. The BBC is not the glorious freeloading . . ." He trails off. "I mean, we had our moments in the past."

On the issue of staff expenses, Thompson's aides point out that spending is "down" - down, that is, from £188,284.98 in the summer of 2009 to £173,527.04 from September to December last year. There are breathtaking individual examples of careless spending, such as a £646.79 bill for a chauffeur-driven car claimed by the BBC's head of technology, Erik Huggers, on a trip to Korea. Asked how that can be justified to, say, a single mother on a council estate struggling to pay the bills, Thompson pauses and then says: "That is true and important. 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."

Thompson made clear in his lecture that he is considering the positions of the BBC's top-paid "talent", such as Graham Norton, Gary Lineker, Jeremy Clarkson and Anne Robinson. However, he describes the need to find a balance between quality and "public acceptability" on pay.

After the Edinburgh speech, the tabloids reported his "threat" to stars' pay. But, speaking to me again several days later, he says: "That was one line out of a long speech - and not the most noteworthy . . . You need to find the best people, you need the best on-air talent and really striking executives . . . 'Realism' [over pay] is the word I used in my lecture. Now realism doesn't mean a white flag . . . But as the public mood changes and the finances change, that landscape changes."

What of the tales of excessive spending on news reporting, particularly foreign reporting, compared to rival networks: hundreds of staff sent to elections abroad, scores of people based in bureaus where one or two will do for the BBC's competitors? Thompson is ready with his own examples.

“Let's look at the BBC News channel. For the Beijing Olympic Games we sent 460 people. NBC, which broadcast around the same number of hours - about 3,000 - sent over 3,000 people, and this is a commercial company. The German papers use the BBC as a stick to beat the German broadcasters, saying: 'Why send more than the BBC?' So, what is the right number of people to send to the Olympic Games? The Daily Mail, if the answer was 20, would say: 'Why are you sending 20?'"

Under fire

It was the Daily Mail - the only paper Thompson names over repeated attacks on him by the press - which complained about the 400 BBC staffers sent to the Glastonbury music festival.

Thompson laughs. "The way this is done is everyone who requests a security pass is registered as a BBC person, including rigger drivers. You need a lot of those at a music event. Instead, the assumption is that they are all people like me. Probably drinking champagne.

“Noise in the newspapers over the BBC has no impact at all on underlying attitudes in the BBC. But it certainly affects morale [inside the corporation], and can sometimes affect the political debate, with some politicians feeling it is an open goalmouth."

Certainly Rupert Murdoch's media stable has been turning its fire at the Beeb, with even the Times - deceptively seen by some readers as the "newspaper of record" - failing to report Thompson's subtle but explicit criticisms of Sky during his Edinburgh speech. Last year, Rupert Murdoch's son James, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation Europe, used the MacTaggart Lecture to condemn the BBC's "chilling" plans for expansion. In his own lecture, Thompson skilfully turned the tables, challenging Sky to invest more in British programme-making. In our second conversation, Thompson, now back in London, expands on the theme. "Given Sky's offer of quality and choice, there is a compelling commercial argument for them to be investing more in British content. And given their position, there is an argument that they need to be doing something for the whole industry."

He gives the example of how "if Britain's big­gest supermarket chain had only a tiny element of British produce in the stores British farmers would not be happy". However, he tempers his criticism, saying: "Sky is committed to quality, I believe that."

So, is the BBC threatened more by its ideological opponents on the right than by rival media companies with vested interests? Thompson laughs and refers to a Hillary Clinton quotation. "I'm not suggesting for a moment that there is a 'vast right-wing conspiracy'. There is a purist free-market debate that has been going on for 20 years and still goes on, but it is a reasonable debate to have. It is a gentlemanly theoretical discussion."

And yet he adds: "I think there is something different and straightforwardly commercial about the pressure in recent years. It's really all about the web, actually; it is not about television and radio."

He suggests that newspapers, which have given away so much of their content free online, are threatened by "a sense of the BBC as a potent competitor", but baulks at the suggestion that the corporation has something of a "monopoly" on web news coverage. "No . . . but we are the most widely used news website in the UK and one of the most popular and trusted news websites in the world. But it is not like going to a newsstand and saying, 'Am I going to buy the New Statesman or the Spectator?' The whole idea that the BBC . . . is somehow crowding out others - well, that is not what is happening on the web. Some people who read newspapers believe that, but it is based on a misunderstanding of how the web works.

“Charging for text is - for specialist jour­nalism - potentially viable. Unproven yet is whether charging consumers for general journalism will work. Is it likely that heavy use of the BBC site means you are less likely to pay for news from other providers? The BBC offers a very special kind of text service. We don't offer comment or strong opinion - the things that are most likely to work in a paid-for environment. Our offering on the web is different in kind from what the newspapers offer."

Post-Hutton

The Murdochs enjoyed much better relations with the previous Labour government than the BBC, which became caught up in the row over the so-called dodgy dossier on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It was an argument that ultimately led to the death of Dr David Kelly, the government's scientific adviser. Thompson refuses to be drawn on whether New Labour became too close to the Murdochs - "I have no evidence for that" - but, on the BBC's relations with Labour, he says: "The last few years, the Blair-Brown years, essentially post-Hutton [the report by Lord Hutton into Kelly's death], were quite tetchy, quite tetchy between the government and the BBC."

Thompson is optimistic about the chances of a "good" settlement under the current government. "What's fascinating - and they [the government] have yet to reveal their hand - is the question of how different the debate would have been had Labour won."

He will not be drawn on what the BBC expects for the new settlement, negotiations for which will begin next year. "We haven't yet taken a view. We'll go into the negotiations recognising public support [for the licence fee], but with a sense of realism, engaging with them in a constructive spirit.

“What we want is an effective and business­like relationship with government - it's not about personal relations." He remarks that there is a "historical presumption" that Labour would be more generous than the Conservatives, but "I am not so sure that is true".

Which brings us to the question of the BBC's politics and the frequent accusations of bias. Thompson says this has been a problem. "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 by the early years of Thatcher.

“Now it is a completely different generation. There is much less overt tribalism among the young journalists who work for the BBC. It is like the New Statesman, which used to be various shades of soft and hard left and is now more technocratic. We're like that, too. We have an honourable tradition of journalists from the right [working for us]. 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."

Indeed, some say that because of the BBC's paranoia about being seen as left-wing, it tacks to the other side. Thompson chuckles at the notion of a "double- or triple-bluff". But David Cameron was certainly given an easy ride in opposition, and the BBC's political coverage - like that of Sky - appeared even to be willing on a Cameron-led government during the intense days of coalition talks. "Look, there is an obvious point to make but I'll make it anyway: it's easier to cover opposition politics when you've got an opposition with a clear leadership and clear agenda. We are doing our best to cover the Labour leadership competition, but, in a way, normal politics will only resume in the autumn [when there is a new opposition leader]."

Critics on the left point to the failure to broadcast a charity appeal for Gaza last year as another example of a manifestation of BBC paranoia, this time about being seen as "anti-Israel". Sky and ITV broadcast the appeal; Ben Bradshaw, the Labour former culture secretary, described the corporation's decision as "in­explicable" and "completely feeble". So, does Thompson have any regrets? "No. No. If you wanted to criticise us you would say we are becoming increasingly tough-minded about the concept of impartiality. In a sense we are becoming more explicit." Here, Thompson is open about the context. "That is a post-Hutton change in the organisation. Impartiality is going up and up the agenda."

Thompson took over at the BBC in June 2004 in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, with a brief to steady the ship after a turbulent period under his predecessor Greg Dyke. Where Dyke is an extrovert, Thompson is more of a quiet mediator, a chairman figure. Some internal critics accuse him of being "hands-off", of lacking quick judgement and (doubtless through mere bad luck) of being almost always on holiday when crisis erupts. But allies say he is a brilliantly skilful operator who is devoted to the BBC. The stint at Channel 4 was the only interruption in a distinguished BBC career that led to his appointment as editor of the Nine O'Clock News and Panorama, before becoming head of features, head of factual programmes and controller of BBC2. Before he left in 2001, he was made director of television, and he returned in the top job of director general. The decision to appoint him was not a surprise.

Thompson, a committed Roman Catholic, was educated by Jesuits at Stonyhurst, in Lancashire. What did he learn there? "My upbringing, my schooldays and parents brought me up to be resilient . . . The nature of journalism today is that it is naturally quite personal, but when I used to be chief executive of Channel 4, I had a relatively quiet life. If I move on from this job, I'll have quite a quiet life again."

How does his faith affect his approach to the job? "I have lots of colleagues at the top of the BBC," he says, "and had at Channel 4, of religious belief, quite a lot with no religious belief at all, and quite a few committed atheists. I think they've all got values which they can bring to work. But just as we don't have a monopoly of the web, we don't have a monopoly of virtue when it comes to broadcasting, either.

“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 their sense of justice, are incredible parts of what motivates people to join. I'm part of that. For me, that's connected with my religious faith but the key thing is: you don't have to be a Catholic."

Up for the fight

The MacTaggart Lecture brought with it inevitable speculation about Thompson's future, some suggesting that he wants to stay on until after the 2012 London Olympics, by which time a settlement on the new licence fee would have been reached. But he will not be drawn into discussing a timescale. "No. I'm enjoying being director general of the BBC and history suggests it may be up to other people to decide when I go," he says, with a smile.

In the lecture, Thompson said he was "up for the fight"; now he reiterates that message. "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 no, I feel there is a lot I have set motoring at the BBC and that I want to see through."

Parting ways with Thompson, you have the feeling that - for all the challenges of his public role and the enjoyment it brings - there is a side to this enigmatic figure that may be looking forward to the quietness to come.