Mark Thompson has never been the quiet type. As a rising star at the BBC in London, he once sank his teeth into the arm of a junior colleague in the middle of a busy newsroom.
The extraordinary canine assault is unlikely to be repeated, but when Thompson was appointed as CEO of The New York Times just over a year into the reign of the paper’s first woman editor, he was always going to make a splash.
Eighteen months later, only one of them is left standing.
Jill Abramson was dismissed this week by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. She had reportedly clashed with Thompson over the direction a 161-year-old newspaper ought to take in the digital age. Thompson had successfully modernized and repurposed the world’s largest broadcaster during an eight-year spell as head of the BBC, and he was brought to New York to help oversee a similar process.
A New York Times staffer told The Daily Beast that Sulzberger was “in awe” of the new arrival. Thompson, now 56, had been appointed director general of the BBC in his mid-40s after roles running the broadcaster’s top news and current-affairs shows, as well as overseeing all of the BBC’s television output.
If Abramson wanted to go head-to-head with the newcomer on video or digital strategy, she was going to be on extremely tricky ground.
Steve Hewlett, presenter of The Media Show on BBC Radio 4 and a longtime colleague of Thompson, said his former boss could be an imposing figure. “Journalistically, he’s very impressive. If you were her and he arrives, you’d think ‘Hang on a second, this guy could do my job,’” he said.
Thompson did not seek to appropriate Abramson’s job at the newspaper, but he did appear to take a far more active role in content production than previous CEOs, who have always been limited to business decisions.
At the BBC, the director general is the chief executive as well as the editor in chief, a dual role that is anathema to The New York Times, where the editorial line has always been fiercely independent from the moneymen.
Some have expressed fears that his grasp on digital expansion poses a challenge to the traditional “church and state” divide at a paper, and there have been debates at the Times over native advertising and whether Thompson’s desire to increase video output should be considered editorial interference.
“In so far as he’s advocating a new digital strategy, you can see why starting a video division is going to go down like a bag of cold sick with some newsroom traditionalists,” said Hewlett. “You can see why there are tensions.”
While Abramson is known for an occasionally brusque manner, Thompson grew into a consummate office politician who survived for almost a decade at the head of the unwieldy and notoriously internecine BBC. “The politics at the BBC can be absolutely ribald and the BBC politician’s politician is Thompson—he is absolutely one of the best at it,” explained Hewlett.
Thompson, who was accustomed to charming senior figures like Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, was well-placed on arrival in New York to win allies among fellow executives and, crucially, the Sulzberger family.
It wasn’t always so easy for Thompson. The 1988 biting incident was made public when an internal BBC email exchange was leaked nine years ago. Jeremy Paxman, the corporation’s most feared on-screen interviewer, had asked the victim if the legendary attack had really taken place. It had: “He suddenly turned, snarled, and sank his teeth into my left upper arm (leaving marks through the shirt, but not drawing blood). It hurt. I pulled my arm out of his jaws, like a stick out of the jaws of a Labrador,” the producer said.
Paxman replied: “The bloke is quite clearly insane. Bloody hell. If any of this came out, he’d be toast.”
It’s testament to his skilled politicking that Thompson sailed through the minor uproar that followed unscathed, despite the misgivings of Paxman and many of his colleagues who thought it would be the end of his career. The BBC confirmed that the bite had taken place but claimed it was merely “horseplay.”
There are clearly two sides to the man. A friend of Thompson told The Daily Beast that he could be “quite stubborn and quite determined” but he had a genial way of managing people and impressing his superiors that allowed him to keep climbing up the corporate ladder.
“I heard senior executives at the BBC complaining that on occasion he was inflexible, but you don’t survive at the BBC as long as he did by turning a deaf ear to people who know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Thompson also managed to avoid blame for one of the most devastating scandals in the corporation’s history. After the death of Jimmy Savile in 2011, it emerged that hundreds of children had been abused by the veteran television presenter, sometimes on BBC property. The attacks came years before Thompson assumed control of the corporation, but an investigation into Savile carried out by the nightly Newsnight program was quietly shelved in 2011, prompting claims of a coverup.
It was reported that Abramson dispatched Matthew Purdy, a Times investigative reporter, to find out how much Thompson knew before he took up his new post on Eighth Avenue. When he found out what she had done, “Mark Thompson was fucking pissed,” a source told New York Magazine.
Thompson escaped the ire of Times reporters and avoided official censure during a subsequent BBC investigation.
But one area where Thompson’s reputation was severely damaged in Britain was over the generous scale of executive pay in a public institution. One BBC producer said Thompson, who earned around $1.3 million a year, or more than five times the salary of the Prime Minister, had been “absolutely hated” by the staff union because of the widespread pay freezes and job cuts that never seemed to affect him or his most senior colleagues.
Thompson’s friend admitted that the former director general had suffered a lapse of judgment in allowing salaries and payoffs for departing staff members to reach millions of dollars. “For a public-sector organization like the BBC, it was going to end in tears and some senior executives were saying to him, ‘This is going to go bad,’ and he didn’t fix it,” the source said.
Reports on Wednesday suggested that the Times’ pay scale had played a role in the dismissal of Abramson. In a memo to staff today, Sulzberger denied claims that Abramson had been paid significantly less than her male predecessor and said a dispute over increasing her remuneration was not one of the issues that hastened her demise.
Whatever else they may have fought over, Thompson’s record at the BBC suggests massive executive salaries are one area where he and Abramson could agree.