BBC Trust row with Mark Thompson over Sky letter shows need for new management structure

The BBC Trust has rapped director general Mark Thompson over the knuckles for signing the letter to business secretary Vince Cable objecting to News Corporation’s bid for the 61 per cent of pay-TV broadcaster Sky it doesn’t already own.

The letter was also signed by a number of the BBC’s enemies (Mail, Telegraph) and broadcast rivals (Channel 4, BT).

The Trust, led by retiring chairman Sir Michael Lyons, says such a stance is a matter of ‘strategy’ (its job) although Thompson’s job description allows him to comment on broadcast issues, which this clearly is.

Thompson, who is also editor-in-chief, has consequently ‘recused’ himself (ridiculous lawyerese for stepping aside) from BBC editorial coverage of the matter in favour of his deputy Mark Byford, who’s working out his notice as Thompson has just sacked him to reduce the management wage bill.

Does all this strike you as a bit of a mess?

Thompson has been conducting a war with News’ James Murdoch who wants the BBC cut down to size (even more). Clearly the Trust thinks he’s overreached himself in this instance, which is debatable. But its early release of news of its action clearly indicates that it’s lost confidence in Thompson and would rather like him to go.

It’s the third reverse for Thompson recently; the first was the Trust’s over-ruling of his decision to close BBC6 Music, the second was the panicky decision to get rid of Byford to try to appease his critics over BBC pay.

He’s also currently conducting a battle with the National Union of journalists at the Beeb over pension rights, which he wants to reduce. This isn’t going very well either.

But critics of the Trust say that its responsibilities are unclear; on the one hand it’s the non-executive board of the BBC (so, in theory at least, on the BBC’s side), on the other it’s the official regulator.

In fact the Beeb’s real boss is the Government’s department of Culture, Media and Sport.

All the other broadcasters in the UK, including Channel 4 which is also state-funded ultimately, are subject to industry regulator Ofcom then the Competition Commission.

The sensible thing would be for the Trust to become the BBC board and Ofcom to be the day-to-day regulator. But that would mean a more powerful Ofcom which PM David Cameron says he doesn’t want…

On that note we’ll leave this one. Except to say that the only thing that’s keeping Thompson in his job is the fact that nobody acceptable to the Government seems to want it.

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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.