Mark Thompson is a burly, clever, self-confident, occasionally slightly intimidating man who until a year ago ran the BBC and is now chief executive officer of The New York Times Company. He’s been at the center of a very open row with his previous employer and one much more covert with his present one — not so much because he’s a troublemaker (though he seems to find it easily) but because trouble is being made for news media with high standards.
Thompson was the subject of a recent piece in New York magazine, which reported growing tension between him and Jill Abramson, the Times’ executive editor. It claimed that “the role of ‘visionary’ at the paper, traditionally held by the news chief, was now being ceded to Thompson,” and that he was usurping some news functions. Author Joe Hagan’s sources were mostly unnamed: one of them told him that Thompson had said to “a Times executive” that “I could be editor of the New York Times: I have that background.” That’s not an emollient statement for Abramson, two years into her job.
At a Reuters Institute event last weekend in Oxford, which I chaired, Thompson declined to speak about the BBC. He was to appear before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on Monday, and there was huge interest in the row that had developed between him and Chris Patten (Lord Patten of Barnes), the chairman of the BBC Trust — a hybrid regulator/cheerleader for the Corporation. Patten had professed ignorance of large severance payments made to a handful of senior BBC executives towards the end of Thompson’s reign, signaling that he shared the MPs’ disapproval at the size of such handouts by a publicly-owned body. But Thompson produced a 13,000-word document for the Committee, which claims that Patten, and his predecessor, were fully briefed. When he finally appeared before the MPs on Monday, he and Patten rehearsed their previous, strongly phrased, positions.
More important is the deeper issue that sparked the row and gives it its context. Thompson is at the forefront of two of the most prominent cases of one of the largest issues to face the news media: how far can they maintain the “Chinese wall” between business and editorial?
As in all other corporations, top executive salaries soared at the BBC in the 2000s. They remained significantly below the private sector: as director general, Thompson got a salary below the one he was paid by Channel Four, a much smaller operation, from which the BBC wooed him back. Yet when he left the BBC he still enjoyed a salary of nearly five times more than the annual £142,500 paid to the UK prime minister, and around ten times more than the salaries paid to the legislators who quizzed him and Patten on Monday.