behind the news

Letter from a Londoner

Mark Thompson must sink his teeth into the Times
November 8, 2012

Journalists at The New York Times are suddenly not feeling so confident about their new chief executive. In the last month, Thompson’s judgement was called into question, because he was the director-general of the BBC when an in-house investigation there into alleged sex abuse by a well-loved former personality was shelved. Thompson hasn’t helped matters by flip-flopping when asked what he knew, first denying he had any knowledge at all, then saying someone told him about the shelved story at a cocktail party after the fact. Should the Times listen to critics calling for Thompson’s head before he’s even started the job?

Probably not. At the BBC, Thompson weathered more than a few controversies effectively. When he was put in charge of “Auntie,” as Brits affectionately call their public broadcaster, the corporation was in tatters after the suicide of a source that cost Thompson’s predecessor his job. Thompson was decisive in response, restructuring management immediately. He later navigated media firestorms over misleading news editing, radio programs that encouraged listeners to call in to pre-recorded shows, and “fake winners” in competitions on charity broadcasts. Most recently, he returned early from a vacation to suspend one of the highest paid presenters in the UK, Jonathan Ross, after Ross and Russell Brand made offensive prank calls on air.

His track record for steering a sprawling national institution through crises is good, and friends attest to his formidable leadership. When I spoke to some of them in August, they painted a portrait of an intelligent but unforgiving strategist. A presenter of The Media Show on BBC Radio 4, Steve Hewlett, said Thompson is “an intellectual bully.” “He’s easily authoritative and very smart,” Hewlett said. “But ruthless — he’ll fire people, he’s no pushover.” Luke Johnson, former chair of rival station Channel 4, described Thompson as “voraciously ambitious,” while close friend and former head of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer, said, “Mark can handle power. He has the hide of a rhinoceros.” And the teeth of a rottweiler, too: In 2005, it emerged that Thompson dropped a ball or two, first by failing to question the news executives who said the sex abuse investigation was cut for “editorial reasons,” then by missing the mentions of the investigation in a daily packet of press cuttings supplied to executive editors at the BBC. At best, this seems like an oversight; at worst, willful ignorance. Either way, he must now put the spotlight back on his new duties in New York, and his plans for the future of the Times.

Those plans will include global digital expansion (on which Thompson has a strong track record) and a reversal of the Gray Lady’s financial fortunes. Last week, the company announced an 85-percent drop in third quarter net revenue on last year, including declining advertising revenue that has not yet been offset by digital subscriptions. More than ever, the figures point to the necessity of a strong chief executive, which the Times has been without since Janet Robinson left last year.

Thompson has never operated in a commercial environment before — the BBC is publicly funded — and his ability to lead in the business world is still a matter of debate. But he has built a reputation on decisiveness and clear-sightedness in an institution that regularly battles bad press. Thompson’s swift response to his detractors in the form of a strong business plan for the Times is now essential.

Sign up for CJR's daily email
Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.