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:
“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.”