Public service will drive Thompson

The combination of Grade and Thompson puts the BBC in a strong position to play the role of a popular broadcaster.

Michael Grade wasted no time. Within five days of taking up the reins as BBC chairman, he had persuaded the board of governors to appoint Mark Thompson as director-general.

Some might say it wasn’t a hard decision and that Thompson was by far the best-qualified candidate. Even so, this was a swift and decisive move, in an organisation not renowned for its fleetness of foot.

Last week’s speed was not only because of Grade’s desire to stamp his authority on the BBC and its board of governors. Thompson, in the guise of Channel 4 chief executive, was due to fly to Los Angeles at the weekend to look at US shows to buy for the channel – which would have been deemed improper as he was in the running for the job at the Beeb.

Grade had once found himself in the same awkward situation – although his career move was in the opposite direction. As the BBC’s director of television in 1987, he’d been about to fly to LA for the screenings when the then chairman of Channel 4, Dickie Attenborough, decided he was the man to succeed Jeremy Isaacs as chief executive. Grade abandoned the trip and went to meet the Channel 4 board.

Thompson will be a very different director-general from both his predecessors. To start with, they were outsiders brought in to shake up the BBC after successful careers in commercial television. Despite his two-year sojourn at Channel 4, Thompson is a BBC lifer who worked his way up from being a 21-year-old trainee to director of television, via some key BBC stepping-stones – editor of the Nine O’Clock News and Panorama, controller of BBC 2 and director of nations and regions.

He knows the BBC inside out and his public service instincts are acutely tuned. He was its director of television three years ago when it became apparent that BBC 1 would overtake ITV in the ratings across the full year. At that stage in the early autumn, it would have been possible to ease off the accelerator and allow ITV to remain just ahead.

According to those in the know, Thompson raised the issue with Dyke. He pointed out that there were political and PR downsides to BBC 1 becoming Britain’s most popular channel: the BBC would be accused of dumbing down, of using its boosted licence-fee income to chase ratings and it would raise the intensity of the commercial channels’ lobbying against the BBC.

It’s said that Dyke looked at him as if he were mad. Not want to overtake ITV? For a competitive animal such as Dyke, the idea was unthinkable, but for a public service political animal such as Thompson, it made perfect sense. However, the new director-general is not afraid to contemplate radical change, as his much-quoted “Banff” speech in 2000 showed.

In that speech at the Canadian TV festival, he envisaged a digital future in which the BBC would begin to move from general, mixed-genre television channels to targeted ones. As well as launching its digital channels, such as News 24 and CBBC, he suggested BBC 1 would increasingly become an entertainment channel and BBC 2 a factual one.

That view now seems a bit ahead of its time and his successor as director of television, Jana Bennett, has reined back on the policy. What we don’t know is what BBC 1 will look like under the Thompson regime.

Thompson will be different from Birt and Dyke in other ways. After two such strong – and frankly divisive – characters, it’s easy to forget that the position of BBC director-general has not always been such a high- profile, controversial figure. Birt set out to take the BBC in one direction, Dyke to wrench it back in another.

Observers believe both men had strengths and weaknesses, and that the middle way is the right one for a BBC that must remain public service, yet popular. If, they say, you could combine the rigour and analysis of Birt and the charisma and creative leadership of Dyke, you really would have the best of both worlds.

That would be hard for one person to achieve. But with Grade as chairman and Thompson as director- general – both already widely acclaimed as the right people for the respective jobs – the BBC’s leadership now seems in strong hands, almost four months after it was left literally leaderless.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of ITV and Channel 4. According to weekend reports, ITV’s shareholders are still gunning for chief executive Charles Allen. Led by Fidelity Investments fund manager Anthony Bolton, the so-called “quiet assassin” who stopped Michael Green becoming ITV chairman, they apparently want Dyke to take over as chief executive. It’s said that ITV chairman Sir Peter Burt, a man with no broadcasting experience, is being lobbied to make the switch.

At Channel 4, they must find a replacement for Thompson who was running the company and floating the idea of a merger with Five. That appointment is now in the hands of Channel 4 chairman, Luke Johnson, another man without broadcasting experience. How quickly things can turn around.

Douglas Torin is media correspondent on BBC News

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