BBC boss Mark Thompson to step down after the Olympics – did he do a good job?

Mark Thompson (pictured) has been director-general of the BBC since 2004 when he came back to the corporation from a short stint at Channel 4 as the Beeb reeled from the enforced departure of Greg Dyke.

Dyke, a former boss of London Weekend Television, has been forced out after the BBC governors, in effect the board, refused to back him in a row with the then Labour government over the Beeb’s reporting of Tony Blair’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Today programme reporter Andrew Gilligan had claimed, in one of those early morning BBC interviews with the studio, that Labour had ‘sexed up’ its so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ (which pretty well gives the game away) that had sought to justify the war on the basis that Saddam Hussein was about to shower chemical weapons on Cyprus. The row led to the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly.

Gilligan was absolutely right (and Dyke was right to back him) but he couldn’t prove it. So Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell (now a frequent performer on the Beeb – how times change) went ballistic and the BBC governors caved in.

Thompson therefore inherited a dramatically weakened organisation and the weakness was compounded by a financial settlement that reined in the BBC’s income, which had ballooned to a staggering £3.3bn a year.

The upshot was a series of gaffes, most notably the ‘Sachsgate’ affair in 2008 starring Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, when the BBC managed to inflate quite minor issues into major crises by its ham-fisted response to the awful prospect of bad publicity and another mullering at the hands of the Daily Mail.

Much more damaging to the BBC than Sachsgate was the furore about some over-creative editing of a trailer for a documentary about The Queen in 2007. This led to the resignation of BBC1 boss Peter Fincham who then moved to ITV to revive the commercial network’s drama output almost single-handed.

In all these cases a stronger D-G would have stepped in earlier, if only by telling the Beeb’s critics to get lost. In his defence Thompson would say (no doubt will say in his memoirs) that his hands were tied by the presence of the BBC Trust, which took over from the unlamented governors.

Thomson also tried to close BBC 6 Music, one of its better recent offerings, and several times wondered whether to axe BBC4, by far its most intelligent and entertaining TV channel, both on cost grounds.

So he leaves a mixed legacy at best, although he would argue that he’s managed to steer the BBC through the worst of the storms, in one piece (and rather despite himself). He did manage to effect the move of much of the BBC to Salford’s Media City in the north west of England without the disasters many predicted (chiefly London-based BBC types who didn’t want to move north). But even here he allowed Media City boss Peter Salmon to commute from his home in the south when others had to move and allowed his minions to appoint a relocation supremo who commuted from Kentucky.

So who’s likely to take over and what will they do?

BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten (former Tory minister Chris Patten) says whoever takes over won’t be paid more than Thompson’s base rate of £671,000. Which would seem to rule out most well-qualified outsiders.

Inside the BBC there’s nobody who obviously sparkles among the three chief candidates of COO Caroline Thompson (not a broadcaster), news head Helen Boaden and BBC Vision (telly) boss George Entwistle. Usually in these beauty contests there’s a BBC presenter or two who gives it a shot; Question Time’s David Dimbleby gave it a go last time but he’s too old now and not wildly popular within the Beeb. Business editor Robert Peston applied unsuccessfully for the job of Radio 4 controller when it came up last. Pesto’s even less popular than Dimbleby though, certainly with rival hacks like political editor Nick Robinson (Pesto keeps pinching his ‘scoops’).

Maybe we’ll regret the passing of Thompson after all.

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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.