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Thompson, Mark (1957-)

Executive, Producer, Editor

Main image of Thompson, Mark (1957-)

Mark Thompson might be considered the classic BBC executive: a white middle class male, a first class degree from Oxford, huge intellectual confidence and analytical ability, and a consummate politician. Colleagues have found him self-deprecating, friendly, even matey, but full of ambition and a steely determination to succeed. In the television world he has had neither particular allegiances nor associations with any particular regime. Indeed, he has worked in key positions with two very different BBC Director Generals, John Birt and Greg Dyke, and attained the post himself in 2004, following the resignation of Greg Dyke after the Hutton inquiry into the death of Civil Service weapons expert David Kelly.

Thompson was born in 1957 and educated at a Jesuit school, Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire. His deep-seated Catholic faith has been a key influence ever since. At Merton College, Oxford, he edited the university newspaper, Isis. In 1979, he joined the BBC as a production trainee and for more than 20 years made a series of significant career moves inside the organisation. In the early years he developed strong journalistic credentials: he was involved in the launch of Watchdog in 1981, and Breakfast Time in 1983, and worked on London Plus. In 1985 he became an output editor on Newsnight.

Aged 30, Thompson became the youngest editor of the Nine O'Clock News, and in 1990 he became the editor of Panorama. Two years later he became Head of Features and in 1994 Head of Factual Programmes, playing a key role in the output of BBC 1 and BBC2. His department introduced series such as Animal Hospital, Modern Times, The House and Ready Steady Cook.

By 1996 he had been appointed to the post of Controller of BBC2, at a time when the BBC was feeling the effects of increased competition. There, dramas such as Our Mutual Friend, The Cops, Amongst Women and Shooting The Past won praise. In the field of entertainment, I'm Alan Partridge, The Fast Show, The Royle Family and Big Train gained critical success. In factual programming he commissioned Ground Force, Back to the Floor, Storyville, Naked and The Nazis - A Warning From History.

Three years later Thompson was moved to the post of Director of National and Regional Broadcasting, where he gained experience of local and regional services, and of the nations at a time of devolution.

In 1991 Mark Thompson was a member of the BBC's Charter Review Task Force on Entertainment, in 1993 he was in the Programme Strategy Review team, and in 1996 he chaired the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Impressed by Thompson's performance at a Royal Television Society convention Greg Dyke, the new Director General in 1999, appointed him Director of Television in 2000. But the following year a vacancy appeared at Channel Four when chief executive Michael Jackson resigned. This provided Thompson with the opportunity to gain commercial experience outside the BBC. He secured the post at the end of 2001.

However, for the first time in its history, Channel Four was facing substantial losses. Thompson's immediate imperative was to reduce the £20 million deficit with a programme of significant job losses and cost cutting. He succeeded in bringing the channel into profit during his brief tenure there, but staff morale remained low and, in spite of his MacTaggart lecture in 2002, in which he called for Channel Four to be the place where "new talent and new opinions find their voice... to be on the side of the iconoclasts, the awkward squad, the rule breakers", many felt that he had been unable to provide a strong enough creative vision. During this period he famously axed the long running soap, Brookside, and Big Brother and Wife Swap became the Channel Four icons and ratings successes. To be fair, after he left, programmes started during his regime, like Sex Traffic, showed a re-engagement with the channel's public service remit.

Thompson was criticised for his apparent lack of commitment to Channel Four when the BBC Director General post became vacant in 2004. Having only completed two years at Channel Four, the board, and particularly the new chairman, Luke Johnson, were anxious for Thompson to continue, and Thompson publicly denied interest in making an application for the job. But 24 hours before the BBC Board met to interview candidates, he decided to put himself forward, and was appointed in May 2004.

Mark Thompson rejoined the BBC at a particularly sensitive time. The Corporation was bruised by the aftermath of the Hutton report, the charter renewal process was already underway and Ofcom was undertaking a public service review. There was a perception that the BBC had been too aggressively commercial under Greg Dyke, and that the Hutton report had left questions about the BBC's journalistic reputation. Thompson's strategy for securing a good licence fee settlement from government was to announce, in December 2004, staffing cuts amounting to 6,000, alongside proposals for moving Radio Five Live, BBC Sport and Children's programmes to a production base in Manchester. He also called for financial efficiency savings of 15% from production budgets in order to reinvest in public service programming, while magazines and book titles, not considered to be core activities, were to be sold off. In March 2005 the government confirmed that the licence fee would be secure until 2016.

Mark Thompson's next challenge is to articulate a strong creative and cultural vision for the BBC. In spite of his formidable intellect, his media strategies have not always worked. Thompson's vision for public service programming over a 'suite of channels', moving away from a generalist output on BBC1 and to genre clusters on all BBC channels, introduced in his 2000 Banff TV Festival speech, was criticised and later revoked. In another example, once he had left Channel Four, his plans for a proposed merger with Channel Five were quickly dropped. To ensure the creative health of the BBC he will need to skilfully manage the balance between cutting jobs and maintaining the talent base, so critical to the BBC's future.

Thompson, Mark, Chief Executive, Channel Four Television, MacTaggart lecture, Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, August 2002
Thompson, Mark, Director of BBC Television 'Creating a Future for Public Service Television', speech at Royal Television Society dinner, November 2000
Thompson, Mark, Director of BBC Television, 'Zapped: Why Public Service TV has to Change,' speech, Banff TV Festival, June 2000
Wells, Matt, 'The quiet revolutionary', The Guardian, 13 December 2004
'The BBC's plans at a glance',, 7 December 2004
Hewlett, Steve, 'A man they can do business with,' The Guardian, 24 May 2004
Wells, Matt, 'Grade gets his man as BBC ends months of turmoil', The Guardian, 22 May 2004
Plunkett, John, 'The Guardian Profile: Mark Thompson', 21 May 2004
Arlidge, John, 'The 4 Man', The Observer, 16 December 2001

Ann Bloss

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