Picking a replacement for Greg Dyke was easy. Finding a new director general will be much harder for the corporation
Mark Thompson's resignation announcement confirms the worst-kept secret in British television. Perhaps the only surprise is that the director general is leaving in the autumn, although Thompson's friends insist he always intended to go then, telling Lord Patten the moment the Tory peer arrived as chairman last year that he would be on his way shortly after the BBC's coverage of the Olympics ends.
The only difficulty had been getting Thompson to the point where he was prepared to finally to go public. But if there was any reluctance in making the announcement, Thompson was not showing it. If anything, there were signs of him being demob happy, joking in private that he could set up business with Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, who announced his departure on Friday.
The fact that there has been no sign of a row with Patten reveals how strong Thompson's position is. The difficulties of the past decade, most notably the faked phone-in competition scandal and the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand furore, have dissipated. Thompson managed to head off criticism of the BBC's size from the Murdochs and Conservatives by negotiating a frozen licence fee with the new government. Meanwhile, Thompson's BBC maintained quality on screen – think Call the Midwife, Frozen Planet or Rev – while innovating off it. The iPlayer may be the single most influential British technological development of the past decade.
Where Thompson failed, arguably, was in diffusing resentment about his own pay, £671,000, and that of other top executives. Few believe the BBC's legendary bureaucracy has been tamed and producer morale remains low in the face of the latest round of cuts, under the Delivering Quality First banner.
Thompson's relationship with BBC staff could not be more different than Greg Dyke's, whose departure in 2004 caused uproar following the Hutton report into the Iraq war, which was highly critical of the BBC. From the moment Dyke left, Thompson was seen as the clear frontrunner. The then Channel 4 chief executive had a BBC CV that included stints editing the Nine O'Clock News and Panorama as well as running BBC2 and all its television channels. None of the other names bandied around as potential successors had the same arsenal of credentials.
Those who know the job say the director general has to make editorial decisions daily, such as whether to permit BNP leader Nick Griffin to go on Question Time, as well as heading political negotiations, such as the lightning closed-door talks with the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that led to the licence fee being held at £145.50. Add to that an ability to read technological change, it means the position requires a skill-set that corporation insiders like to believe only BBC veterans can possess.
Some believe the race will come down to just two: Caroline Thomson, the chief operating officer, and George Entwistle, the director of television, although neither is anything close to a household name. Both have the advantage of being unlikely to be fazed by the £300,000-400,000 salary on offer. The money may seem substantial to an ordinary licence fee payer but, to an American or even a British commercial TV executive, it is modest for a high-risk job.
Thomson, who would be the first female director general, has spent the past 20 years in policy at the BBC and at Channel 4. She has the administrative credentials, having taken on the critical task of handling the day-to-day negotiations around the BBC's most recent royal charter renewal. But she has not made programmes since the mid-1980s, when she established science series Equinox on Channel 4.
Durham University graduate Entwistle joined as a BBC trainee and edited Newsnight from 2001-04. Thereafter, he moved through a succession of relatively low-profile executive jobs before being appointed by Thompson as director of vision last year. He has had little time to stamp himself on his current job, although he has said he wants to concentrate spending on BBC2 at the expense of BBC3 and BBC4.
Of the other internal candidates, Tim Davie, the enthusiastic controller of radio, is felt to lack gravitas and has never made a programme, although he has proved a safer than expected pair of hands. Helen Boaden, the seasoned head of BBC News, prefers a low profile. BBC sources complain that she is reluctant to take to the airwaves to defend BBC journalism, which bodes ill for the intensely public top job.
Meanwhile, Patten will not want to simply interview the faces he sees around the building, giving ex-BBC1 boss Peter Fincham, ITV's controller of television, and Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham an opportunity. Fincham, however, came a cropper at BBC1 for saying the Queen had stormed out of a photoshoot when a clip had been misleadingly edited, while Abraham, new at Channel 4, has a background in advertising not programming.
The absence of candidates with management and editorial experience has led to speculation that the traditional role of editor in chief could be separated from the director generalship, but the dual function is written into the royal charter so it is unlikely that will be a practical solution. So as it stands, the race to succeed Thompson leaves Patten and the BBC Trust choosing from a low- profile field, for what remains the most important job in British broadcasting. Their decision will not be straightforward.Mark ThompsonTelevision industryRadio industryBBCDan Sabbaghguardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds