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The man from Auntie

15 Aug 2012 By Antony Currie, Rob Cox

New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is going to have to work hard to convince shareholders, including his family members, that he found the right chief executive in outgoing BBC Director General Mark Thompson. Running a UK media group with guaranteed revenue is hardly analogous to leading a U.S. newspaper business challenged by free-market forces. But the broadcast veteran’s battle-scars from tangling with Rupert Murdoch may prove priceless.

The New York Times is putting the serious business case forward, highlighting Thompson’s role in developing the BBC’s digital content. The publisher also notes that Thompson oversees BBC Worldwide, its commercial arm outside the UK. But he is the unit’s chairman, rather than chief executive; and has also only held the role since March.

BBC Worldwide’s pre-tax profit margin, excluding discontinued businesses, in its most recent fiscal year was marginally better than the Times’s. But all comparisons between the two companies are silly: 71 percent of the BBC’s income is derived from the license fee that all TV-owning homes in the country are obliged to pay.

That’s not to overlook Thompson’s media skills, albeit at an organization with a different mandate than a U.S broadcaster. Earlier in his career he produced hard-hitting news programs. And while in charge of Channel 4, a state-owned but mainly commercially funded broadcaster, he demonstrated an ability to develop joint ventures to adapt to new technology while keeping costs relatively low.

What Thompson does have, however, is a taste for a fight with Murdoch, a task the Times chairman appears unworthy, or afraid, of taking on with much gusto. Two years ago, before the phone-hacking scandal punctured the Murdoch empire’s force-field, Thompson led the charge against News Corp’s purchase of the remainder of UK satellite broadcaster BSkyB. He argued the deal would create “cross-media ownership that would not be allowed in the United States or Australia.”

Thompson might have been right – at least about Australia. In the United States, over the long run the Times cannot win the economic battle against better-funded, more popular media organizations like Murdoch’s Fox. But it can make the case that it is an exception, a little like the BBC, worthy of some protections. That’s a sentiment Thompson can articulate.


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