I have known Mark Thompson since the mid- 1980s: he was one of a crop of bright young producers and presenters working on BBC2’s Newsnight, for which I was the arts correspondent. They were a clever generation and many went on to have important roles in and out of the BBC: Mark Damazer, Mark Urban, Jana Bennett, Gavin Esler. Mark, however, was the one who most consistently put items about the arts in his editions of Newsnight. Whenever he was the producer of the day, he would come to my desk in search of a story, eager to report on the whole spectrum of the arts and their importance in the culture of the country. I was delighted. The arts usually have a rough time when it comes to current affairs, falling off the day’s agenda and being dropped at the last minute as heavier news stories break.
Mark was as interested in ideas as events, and remains so. Later, as controller of BBC2, he invited me to make a series of programmes called My Generation. He was prompted by a book called Our Age by Noel Annan, which profiled his generation – the world of Bloomsbury, King’s College, Cambridge, and beyond. Again, I was pleased. My series charted the outlook of those of us who grew up during the war and came to inherit the enlightenment agenda that nourished the postwar welfare state. My generation – now in our seventies – still stands by the vision we had of what society should be. A strong and independent BBC was part of that vision. Since then, Mark’s path and mine have crossed infrequently but always congenially.
Joan Bakewell I’ll sock it to you right from the start. How many people from the BBC went to Glastonbury this year?
Mark Thompson I’ve no idea. We can find out.
JB I ask because it must be an annual assessment made by the Daily Mail.
MT If a rigger arrives a week early with a bit of scaffolding, they count that as one person. But there’s no hospitality. I enjoy Glastonbury from the comfort of my sofa. (The family was divided – a Beyoncé audience downstairs and my elder son and I watching Queens of the Stone Age upstairs.) In the British press, the BBC sending a few hundred people to the Beijing Olympics was a national scandal. We sent about a tenth of the number sent by NBC, the US broadcaster. We’re known internationally for the small numbers of people we send, but in a newspaper 100 sounds like a lot, in the way £7m for taxis does. It depends on the context. We should make sure we’re doing these things with as few people as we can and I think we do.
JB People like a story that plays against the BBC.
MT Some newspapers certainly do. Ironically, if you ask the readers of the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times what they think about the BBC, they are among its strongest supporters. They give the BBC high marks for value for money and the quality of its services and they support the licence fee, so there’s no correlation between the attitudes of these readers to the BBC and the editorial line of the papers.
JB There’s a parallel with the National Health Service. Everybody loves the NHS but we’re living through a time in which it is being deconstructed.
MT You can say that. I couldn’t comment.
JB It’s as though the large institutions are up for analysis, for criticism.
MT Many British institutions are experiencing a measurable loss in public confidence and support. It’s not detectable in public attitudes to the BBC but the papers want you to believe that there’s exactly such a loss of support.
JB What about government support?
MT I’ll come to that. The BBC is almost unique – the NHS is, too – as an institution that has strong public support. To its critics among the print media, the BBC is a rival with an unfair advantage: public funding. To the public, the BBC is a provider of quality services that are available to everyone; in a time of national austerity, [this] is important. The BBC is more essential in terms of the provision of news than it used to be, because, although there’s a multiplicity of sources of news, many of the other historically strong sources are much weaker. Something like 85 per cent of the UK population use the BBC’s news every week.
JB But over the horizon comes the new deal with BSkyB and the [government’s] decision about Rupert Murdoch’s bid to take over the whole of BSkyB. Sky News is to be hived off under a non-executive chairman and some of the board are going to be non-executive for a period of only ten years. This has shifted the landscape for you, hasn’t it?
MT Across Europe, we’ve seen the consolidation of commercial media. A pattern in many European countries is that there is only room for one major pay-television operator. If you are that operator, the amount of cash that’s potentially thrown off by the business is colossal. In the UK, you have a pay-TV operator experiencing exactly this. Because of commercial decisions taken ten or 20 years ago, BSkyB is in
an utterly commanding position and will have far more money than the BBC or any other media player in the UK to spend on content.
JB What do you think of that?
MT We’re talking about a concentration of media power in the UK that’s unheard of in British history and unheard of anywhere else in Europe. The combination of that kind of power with ownership of a significant part of the newspapers people read, as well as an internet service provider – this is extraordinary power. In the end, it’s for the competition authorities . . .
JB Did you press for it to be referred to the competition authorities?
MT Last autumn, I rather famously co-signed a letter saying that the proposal of News Corporation to buy the remaining balance of the shares should be referred to the competition authorities. I also made the case in Edinburgh in the MacTaggart Lecture last year.
JB So what do you make of this settlement?
MT I don’t want to say any more. It’s unusual for me to want to do anything other than cover these stories in an impartial and objective way. Given the shape of what’s happening – the relative decline of other sources of electronic news, the funding security of ITN, the ability of commercial radio to fund news, the difficulty newspapers are having in funding newsgathering – it is going to be more, not less, important that the BBC has sufficient resources to be able universally to deliver high-quality, strictly impartial news to the British public.
JB You’ve never faced such a big beast, have you?
MT The concentration of media power doesn’t have to be a problem. The issue is whether governments and competition authorities look at the environment and continue to look at it.
JB Do you think they’ll buy your talent?
MT The BBC historically has had far less money to spend on its services than other players around the world. We remain the biggest and most trusted international news provider in the world, not because we’ve got more money but because we’ve got a reputation. It’s going to be tougher after last year’s Spending Review (SR) settlement, but we do have the resources to deliver outstanding journalism.
JB But they can still buy your talent.
MT For decades, we’ve seen a steady stream of people who’ve grown up at the BBC going off to ITV. To some extent, that’s the system working – one of the reasons you might want a BBC is as a nursery slope for talent.
JB Would you work for Murdoch?
MT (Laughs) I’m fully, fully engaged doing what I’m doing at the moment.
JB It’s not a “no”?
MT I wouldn’t regard it as a “yes”, either. It’s important to look at the shape and balance of our media sector, rather than trying to demonise anyone. I believe that BSkyB, in many ways, has been a positive force. It’s good to see somebody else investing in British talent and that, alongside the BBC, you’ve got Sky Arts. But it’s important that everyone realises that Sky Arts is a service for those who already know they like the arts. When we put the Proms on BBC television, we can get, not counting the last night, between ten and 12 million people to sample them. We take the arts and share them with an entire population. We’re doing something very different from Sky. There’s room for both.
JB The World Service suffered cuts recently. [The BBC has] a new chairman in Chris Patten, who I suspect made representations to government and got some of that rescinded. On the other hand, the World Service will be brought into the BBC’s budget. I’m worried. The BBC won’t ring-fence that money and there’s a risk that the corporation will leach it away.
MT You say that the BBC “won’t ring-fence” it, but once it’s paid for by the licence fee, I expect to increase the funding of the World Service, not diminish it. I’m sure that increase will last to the end of the present charter period. I don’t know how much I can increase it; I’ll need to propose this to the BBC Trust.
JB The financing could have stayed with the Foreign Office, couldn’t it?
MT It could. But one of the lessons I was beginning to draw last summer from conversations with the government concerning the SR was that the World Service’s funding would be safer in the hands of the BBC than in the context of these once-every-three-years SRs.
JB Let’s speak about local news. At one point, BBC Oxford News was going to be cut. Then you got a letter from David Cameron . . .
MT I had a nice letter from David Cameron [about this], which I replied to with another nice letter.
JB So there was a charming collusion here between two people who live in Oxford.
MT First, let’s pull back a bit. We’re in the middle of an open debate inside the BBC about its future. One idea was whether you could merge local radio with Radio 5 Live or reduce local radio in some way. Although local radio is relatively cheap to run, when you run 40 radio stations in England, you have to multiply the cost. The point of local radio is that if it’s not local, it’s not doing its job. It’s reasonable for people to have a debate about merging or shutting local radio but that’s not the way forward for the BBC. There’s a number of people, particularly older people, for whom local radio is the main or only form of BBC radio they consume.
JB But wasn’t it rather strange to get a letter from the Prime Minister about local radio?
MT If you want to pursue it, you must talk to him about it. I’ve had a number of letters from MPs raising concerns that have been put to them by their constituents about these rumours. The terms of the Prime Minister’s letter were those raised by his constituents.
JB Did you write as emollient a letter back to each of those MPs?
MT I’ve written in similar, even identical terms to other MPs.
JB You’ve got a new chairman, a strong character, who is taking an interest in the World Service and the pay scales in the BBC. A lot of people would agree that flak has come the way of the BBC because of management salaries. That’s undeniable, people have got it in for you. There’s a paradox: those who are paid high salaries are often in high-risk jobs, so the salaries are a compensation for that risk – but BBC jobs are for life, with good pensions.
MT Have you looked at actuarial tables for BBC directors general in terms of high-risk jobs?
JB They go on to better things, perhaps.
MT Give me an example. (Laughs)
JB Where did Greg [Dyke] go?
MT Yeah. Just mull over that. William Haley became editor of the Times when he left the job in 1952. That’s it. (Laughs)
JB The point, Mark, is that it’s done the BBC a lot of damage. The press and the public have taken against the idea that there are “fat cats”.
MT It’s clearly controversial. Each year, we ask people whether, over the course of the year, their opinion of the BBC has gone up or down. What percentage of the UK population would you say cites senior pay as the reason for why their opinion of the BBC went down last year?
JB A lot of people won’t know [about it].
MT It’s about 1.5 per cent of people.
JB Including [the crime writer and Conservative peer] P D James.
MT Most people in broadcasting understand that if you compare pay at the BBC with other broadcasting pay, it’s much lower. Compared to other public bodies, it’s very high. The BBC is a big institution and requires management. We’ve already committed to reducing the number of senior managers. When I became director general in 2004, there were about 700 senior managers – there are just below 500 now. Two hundred have gone already. You will see in the coming weeks a further, significant planned fall in the numbers of senior managers.
JB And pay?
MT Pay has come down significantly. We were the first – or one of the first – public bodies to freeze pay. I’ve never taken a bonus in this
job. Long before bonuses became contentious, I was waiving my bonus. We’ve frozen bonuses for all jobs; we’ve had a pay freeze for these jobs; we’ve removed pension supplements for senior managers. I think you will go on seeing a period of reform, but if the BBC cuts itself off from the way in which people in the rest of the media are paid . . . it’s not a healthy way to run a great broadcaster. We are beginning to see executives leaving the BBC for jobs where they are being paid double or more. Once they move, it becomes very hard to come back.
JB The parallel is not with the commercial sector; it is with other public institutions.
MT All of our competition for the people we want to get is with other broadcasters.
JB You can take in managers from other industries, at private and public institutions.
MT Most of our external appointments are from the private, not public, sector. Other public bodies – local councils, even cultural institutions – aren’t offering people the skills and experiences we need. The big area of growth in recent years has been the digital space, which is almost entirely in the private sector. We’re having to recruit internationally and pay is in a different order. The BBC is trying to straddle the reality of finding people with what the public expects of public-sector pay. You will see more movement in the months to come.
JB In terms of management and cutting down?
MT Yes. I think we’ve now got the smallest top management board the BBC has ever had. I would hope that we will get to a point where the population of senior managers at the BBC is at or below 1 per cent of the staff.
JB Let’s move on. Post-Hutton, post-Jonathan Ross, there’s a sense that the BBC has grown timid and the fire in the belly has died.
MT Did you see the Panorama on care homes?
JB Yes, and I made a Panorama, too [on care for the elderly]. I’m aware that there are exceptions, but there’s a sense that creative risk-taking has been constrained. I know this because we all have to fill in these compliance forms.
MT There are several different issues here. One is whether we’ve got the courage to do brilliant, cutting-edge comedy and great investigative journalism. I think we do. There were things that not every New Statesman reader will think were right – for example, recognising that we should have members of the British National Party on Question Time. We are about to broadcast a three-part documentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. I can’t see any evidence that, in our output, we are any less . . .
JB I’ll give you the evidence.
MT No, hang on. We did, in the light of the Russell Brand show and the trouble with competitions, put in place more explicit methods of compliance: forms to fill in, programmes to be listened to by more than one person. Why? Because we’ve had some really quite bad slip-ups, which demonstrated that the existing systems of compliance weren’t being properly conducted. Have we got to the point where we should look at those systems and say, “Can we simplify them?” Yes. It’s very easy rhetorically to turn this into: “The BBC has lost its nerve.”
JB I’m talking about me. I’m having my vocabulary checked and modulated.
MT I’m amazed anyone’s got the nerve . . . I’m the editor-in-chief. I can give you permission. What won’t they let you say? Swear words?
JB It’s to do with an attitude that I was expressing towards a public institution. They said, “Perhaps it would be safer to say . . .” Now, when a producer says that . . .
MT The finer points of a line in a script has got nothing to do with . . .
JB It’s the end result of a climate of thinking that makes people feel . . .
MT Come, come!
JB I’m telling the truth! I’m on the front line.
MT In drama, comedy and investigative journalism, I think we are braver now than ever.
JB What about the era of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, David Mercer – a whole swath of socially challenging drama?
MT Did you see Five Daughters last year, which we put on BBC1? An incredibly powerful drama about the Ipswich murders. If you listen to and watch what we’re up to, we’re doing that. The Russell Brand show was identified as a programme that had an editorial risk and nobody bothered to listen to it. You clamp down to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again. If you’re saying that this can lead to an over-concern about individual phrases – let’s look at that. But to try to build that up . . .
JB I wonder if it’s a fear of political bias.
MT I think we are more anxious about impartiality now than we have been in the past. One of the things that the public wants us to be is strictly impartial. Impartiality is the reason we had the BNP on Question Time. Sometimes, a concern for impartiality requires quite brave decisions. We don’t have the right to exclude any party that has a significant, demonstrative electoral support, up to a certain level. There have been occasions, I believe, in the past, when the BBC has had limitations. For example, I think there were some years when the BBC, like the rest of the UK media, was very reticent about talking about immigration.
JB Why do you think that was?
MT There was an anxiety whether or not you might be playing into a political agenda if you did items about immigration. In the 2010 election campaign, none of the parties was talking about immigration. We believed we should deal with it, because the public – not everyone, but a significant proportion – was saying to us that it was a real issue. We’ve got a duty, even if issues are sensitive and difficult to get right, to confront what the public want. I don’t like the idea of topics that are taboo.
JB What on earth is Thought for the Day doing in the middle of a news magazine?
MT With Radio 4, like all of our services, you’ve got a shape that has been built up over decades of expectations and usage, which the public likes. Not all of it fits into a sort of PowerPoint slide, with neat divisions of genre. What you’ve got are living services.
JB This is an eccentric leftover, isn’t it?
MT The idea of a moment for reflection in the middle of a topical few hours is interesting.
JB Do you listen?
MT When I can, I do listen. The only people who are anxious about it are people who are anxious, as you are, to make a point about it. There are people for whom it is very symbolic, one way or the other, and that’s to be respected and worked through.
JB You’re a Catholic, aren’t you?
MT The last time I looked, yes.
JB How does your life shape up with your faith and your work?
MT I’ve worked in broadcasting with people with every combination of belief, non-belief, or ethical value system. Most people bring the whole of themselves in some way to bear, but at the same time my job, as editor-in-chief, is to keep this organisation open to perspectives.
JB I was asking something internal about you. Does your faith find fulfilment at the BBC?
MT I don’t think there’s a tension between the idea of being Catholic, or an Oxford resident, or a not-very-good amateur pianist, and being editor-in-chief of the BBC. What I try to bring is a sense of the values that I think you need to discharge this job properly – commitment to impartiality, integrity and truthfulness.
JB I present the Radio 3 programme Belief [the format invites individuals to discuss their spiritual world-view] and I mentioned to you once that we were thinking of interviewing a witch and you thought that would be fine.
MT I said that, did I?
JB Then I said – seeing how far we could push the boundaries: “What about a Scientologist?” And you shook your head.
MT If I shook my head, I don’t think I meant it. I take Belief to mean what it says on the tin.
JB We also had a conversation some time ago about ageism. I set out the case that the BBC had no older women reading the news and that reinforced a biased attitude towards older women in society. You took the point. A little later, modest changes were made and we now occasionally have older women reading the news. Then Miriam O’Reilly won her case against the BBC for ageism, when she was sacked from Countryfile. A lot of older women rejoiced. Were you surprised by that?
MT I learned a lot about the case as it was taking place. More than that, I think that I and the BBC have learned from and need to go on learning from the verdict. As you know, this was something I was quite concerned about before the O’Reilly case came up. But that case confirmed to me that the BBC is well placed and has a responsibility to do something about it.
JB So it remains on the agenda.
MT Very much so.