Home / Media / What should the BBC’s Mark Thompson say to his critics (the Government, James Murdoch, the staff)?

What should the BBC’s Mark Thompson say to his critics (the Government, James Murdoch, the staff)?

Yes there are quite a lot of them and this Friday (August 27) BBC director general Mark Thompson delivers the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival where he is expected to answer them.

The coalition government has so far, wisely, kept its powder dry on the BBC, lobbing the odd brick at supposedly out-of-control costs when the tabloids find some but giving no details on how it would like to reduce the BBC’s size (which we all assume it would like to do) or by how much it will cut the overly generous licence fee (the BBC currently receives about £3.5bn from UK citizens).

Thompson is therefore unlikely to pick up a fight with David Cameron and co, concentrating on his other critics but making the overall case for a strong BBC. So that’s the easy part out of the way.

In last year’s MacTaggart outgoing Sky boss James Murdoch, now effectively number two to dad Rupert at News Corporation, blasted the BBC for its “chilling” size and ambitions, saying it deliberately squashed competitors (although Sky, ITV and the big newspaper cum online companies remain remarkably un-squashed).

And this is surely the point Thompson should make. Murdoch junior would be very happy for the BBC to be made smaller, in particular by sharply reducing its online activities, because that would help News Corp’s own ambitions, especially its apparently doomed attempts to persuade punters to pay for News International websites.

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News Corp is currently trying to buy the 63 per cent of Sky it doesn’t own (although it does effectively control the company) and was thwarted by the previous UK government in its bid to buy a big stake in ITV so some might say its own ambitions were chilling too. James therefore represents a big fat target for Thompson to aim at and it would do BBC morale no end of good if he let the upstart have it with both barrels.

Alas this is hardly Thompson’s style but we’ll see.

But then there’s the staff. They, like the Government and others, are disenchanted by the boss class that has grown up at the BBC under Thompson (who took over from Greg Dyke as BBC boss in 2004), inevitably symbolised by Thompson’s £800,000 plus annual earnings and the half a million quid (plus £400,000 a year eventual pension) his deputy Mark Byford, hardly a broadcasting legend, trousers.

Thompson and his managers have also launched (and already bungled) an attempt to cut BBC pensions for more junior staff although not their own.

Finally the troops are outraged because many of them are being forced to relocate to the wilds of Salford near Manchester to occupy the BBC’s new ‘media village’ while the nobs, like BBC North boss Peter Salmon, are being allowed to lodge there (at our expense) in the week but keep their homes in the south.

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It’s hard to see how Thompson can assuage these critics without taking a pay cut himself, imposing similar cuts on other top managers and telling the supposedly northern lot to pack their clogs and make the best of it. At which point many of them will leave but there you go.

He can hardly scrap the move to Salford entirely now (having spent squillions on the plan to accommodate the likes of Radio 5 and BBC Sport) although he might be able to cut it back a bit.

So there you are: give the Murdochs a good kicking, eat humble pie over management, staff pensions and Salford and don’t give any hostages to the Government (which knows perfectly well that most UK viewers and indeed onliners value the BBC immensely).

If Thompson fails to do this, or do most of it, then his desire to stay in charge of the BBC to oversee the 2012 Olympics (arise Sir Mark) may be dashed.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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