Murdoch Could Have "Media Power Unheard of in British History": As the News Corporation Takeover of BSkyB Hangs in the Balance, Joan Bakewell Grills Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, on Executive Salaries, Political Bias and Whether the Beeb Has Lost Its Nerve

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I have known Mark Thompson since the mid-1980s: he was one of a crop of bright young producers and presenters working on BBC2's Newsnight, for which I was the arts correspondent. They were a clever generation and many went on to have important roles in and out of the BBC: MarkDamazer, Mark Urban, Jana Bennett, Gavin Esler. Mark, however, was the one who most consistently put items about the arts in his editions of Newsnight. Whenever he was the producer of the day, he would come to my desk in search of a story, eager to report on the whole spectrum of the arts and their importance in the culture of the country. I was delighted. The arts usually have a rough time when it comes to current affairs, falling off the day's agenda and being dropped at the last minute as heavier news stories break.

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Mark was as interested in ideas as events, and remains so. Later, as controller of BBC2, he invited me to make a series of programmes called My Generation. He was prompted by a book called Our Age by Noel Annan, which profiled his generation - the world of Bloomsbury, King's College, Cambridge, and beyond. Again, I was pleased. My series charted the outlook of those of us who grew up during the war and came to inherit the enlightenment agenda that nourished the postwar welfare state. My generation - now in our seventies - still stands by the vision we had of what society should be. A strong and independent BBC was part of that vision. Since then, Mark's path and mine have crossed infrequently but always congenially. Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell I'll sock it to you right from the start. How many people from the BBC went to Glastonbury this year?

Mark Thompson I've no idea. We can find out.

JB I ask because it must be an annual assessment made by the Daily Mail.

MT If a rigger arrives a week early with a bit of scaffolding, they count that as one person. But there's no hospitality. I enjoy Glastonbury from the comfort of my sofa. (The family was divided - a Beyonce audience downstairs and my elder son and I watching Queens of the Stone Age upstairs.) In the British press, the BBC sending a few hundred people to the Beijing Olympics was a national scandal. We sent about a tenth of the number sent by NBC, the US broadcaster. We're known internationally for the small numbers of people we send, but in a newspaper 100 sounds like a lot, in the way [pounds sterling]7m for taxis does. It depends on the context. We should make sure we're doing these things with as few people as we can and I think we do.

JB People like a story that plays against the BBC.

MT Some newspapers certainly do. Ironically, if you ask the readers of the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times what they think about the BBC, they are among its strongest supporters. They give the BBC high marks for value for money and the quality of its services and they support the licence fee, so there's no correlation between the attitudes of these readers to the BBC and the editorial line of the papers.

JB There's a parallel with the National Health Service. Everybody loves the NHS but we're living through a time in which it is being deconstructed.

MT You can say that. I couldn't comment.

JB It's as though the large institutions are up for analysis, for criticism.

MT Many British institutions are experiencing a measurable loss in public confidence and support. It's not detectable in public attitudes to the BBC but the papers want you to believe that there's exactly such a loss of support.

JB What about government support?

MT I'll come to that. The BBC is almost unique -the NHS is, too - as an institution that has strong public support. To its critics among the print media, the BBC is a rival with an unfair advantage: public funding. To the public, the BBC is a provider of quality services that are available to everyone; in a time of national austerity, [this] is important. …