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Tuesday, 02 September 2014

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I get death threats... my job can be scary

The BBC’s plan to cut programmes and jobs at Radio Cumbria led to disappointment and anger. But, as far as Caroline Thomson is aware, no death threats.

Caroline Thomson photo
Caroline Thomson

Caroline is the BBC’s chief operating officer; its number two. She is among the favourites to become the next director general when the top job becomes vacant in the next few months.

And Caroline, who is married to Cumbrian Baron Roger Liddle and spends much of her time at the family home in Abbeytown, has already stood in the firing line as the public face of the world’s best-known broadcaster.

Three years ago death threats dropped into her email inbox. This followed the BBC’s refusal to broadcast a humanitarian appeal for Gaza after the Israeli invasion.

The broadcaster cited the need for impartiality. Not everyone was persuaded.

Caroline says: “I was on a train on the way up here for the weekend. I was rung up and told I’d got to go back and go on Newsnight and defend the decision.

“Those things are quite tough. As well as tough questioning on the television, you get personal abuse. My emails completely collapsed. You get death threats. So there are times when it’s not just scary because it’s a big responsibility – it’s actually scary.”

She says she didn’t really take the threats seriously. But her usual cheery, confident manner disappears during this tight-lipped recollection.

The BBC has always provoked strong reactions. Hopefully not as strong as those of some Gaza protestors. But the fevered newspaper stories and politicians’ speeches confirm how central the Corporation is to British life. Ninety-six per cent of us watch or listen every week.

Caroline, 57, seems to relish life at the top. Her vast remit includes the BBC’s relationship with government, its strategy – enough to keep anyone busy – and its digital policy.

She also masterminded the recent move of several BBC departments to Salford. The response has been predictable: popular in the North; pilloried by London-based media.

“The BBC has been far too London-centric for far too long,” says Caroline. “I think if you’re working outside London you have a different perspective. And the BBC needs more different perspectives.

“Over the last 10 years a cultural devolution has happened in England. The idea that everything interesting in the cultural and political life of Britain happens in London is no longer the case. And the BBC has to reflect that.”

What the BBC should and should not be doing has long been a favourite national conversation. Licence-fee payers are not shy to comment if they feel their funds are misused. Governments attempt to volley this political football left or right. Some of the loudest attacks have come from the Sky TV-owning Murdoch family and their newspapers.

“Nothing is more important than the BBC’s independence,” insists Caroline. “You absolutely can’t let politicians of any hue tell you what to do.

“Two or three years ago the level of negativity began to sap morale a bit. There was a lot of criticism from politicians and a lot of the press that are owned by people who are our competitors.

“Rupert Murdoch made a speech in which he lambasted Britain for having the BBC. James Murdoch said ‘the only guarantor of independence is profit’. I think that looks a bit rich now.”

But how independent is the BBC? In 2010 the licence fee was frozen for six years under pressure from government. This and other changes amounted to a 16 per cent cut in funds.

“I think you have to differentiate between pressure on content, which is completely illegitimate, and pressure to make sure the BBC is efficiently run. I don’t think we’ve a right to ask people for continual licence fee increases when they’re having their salaries cut and losing their jobs.

“The BBC can’t stand still. We have said that we need to save 20 per cent, then we can have four per cent left to reinvest. It’s very difficult in a world where we’re all trying to cut costs not to upset anyone.”

People were certainly upset by the prospect of cuts which would have slashed Radio Cumbria’s weekend and evening coverage and cost nine jobs. After a vigorous campaign the plan was dropped.

“I think we got the local radio proposals slightly wrong,” admits Caroline. “Because I see the Radio Cumbria people a bit and listen to it a lot, I perhaps clocked that quicker than other people did within the BBC. I was up here during the Whitehaven shootings. I know how important the staff were. We’d tried to protect local radio. But we hadn’t protected it enough.”

She cannot say if the reprieve will last. “We can’t avoid cuts. If we’re going to deliver 20 per cent savings, no area can be completely exempt.

“But we went a bit too far and the changes should be less. In particular we should be safeguarding journalism in the newsroom because that’s where they’re really delivering something that matters.”

The cost of a TV licence is one area of debate. The bigger issue is whether the licence can survive in an internet age: a licence is not needed to watch programmes on BBC iPlayer.

Then there’s the argument that the licence fee should not be paid by those whose TV is rarely tuned to BBC.

“The way Britain runs public services, people often pay for things they don’t use. My son’s no longer at school.

“But I’m happy to pay taxes to support an education system. We do aim to provide a service that will give something to everyone because we recognise it’s a compulsory charge.”

Caroline cannot guarantee that it will remain so. “We clearly have to look over the next four or five years at the future of a licence fee charged on the ownership of a television set. But I think the licence fee’s probably got a bit more life in it than other people do.”

How the BBC spends public money is coming under increasing scrutiny. A House of Commons report criticised the number of staff the Corporation sends to some sporting events.

Another controversial area is multi-million-pound contracts for presenters. Here the public-service BBC competes with commercial rivals.

“Some of our presenters and producers could go and work for ITV or Sky. Viewers want great presenters and they’re few and far between. When we renegotiate contracts we try and get them for less.”

Caroline’s salary is £307,000. Since 2009 her remuneration has reduced by 16 per cent.

“We’ve cut the cost of senior management by 25 per cent and the numbers by 20 per cent. I think we got senior pay a bit wrong and we’ve had to bring it back into line.

“Having said that, the guy who runs iPlayer can earn eye-watering amounts of money. They work for us for a quarter of what they could earn at Microsoft or Google. But it’s still a hell of a lot of money by anyone else’s standards.”

The level of scrutiny towards her salary and her every word will only increase if Caroline becomes the BBC’s first female director general. At this stage she is not ruling herself in, or out, of the running.

“I shall decide when there’s a vacancy,” she says with a smile. “It’s an enormous job. Mark Thompson [the current director general] once described it as like skateboarding downstairs holding a Ming vase.

“If you’ve been as close to it as I have, you find the prospect that you might do it a bit awesome. You stop and think, my goodness, this would be big. On the other hand it would be enormously exciting and very challenging. So, we shall see.”

Caroline spends as much time in Cumbria as her job allows. She grew up in London and appreciates the slower pace of life here. She has been married for 27 years to Roger Liddle, a former adviser to Tony Blair. Roger grew up in Currock and was chairman of regeneration body Cumbria Vision until it closed last year.

The couple’s son Andrew is at university. He and his dad are Carlisle United fans.

Caroline is a trustee at Tullie House Museum. Her spare time is spent walking, entertaining friends, and consuming the BBC.

She listens to Radio 3 and is a “news junkie” who also enjoys Outnumbered, Miranda and, especially, Sherlock. “It made me laugh as well as sit on the edge of my seat.”

Her BBC career could be described in much the same way. A happier recollection than the death threats is Caroline’s visit to Sierra Leone when she was deputy managing director of the World Service. People queued patiently for a chance to meet the lady from the BBC.

“It was like a mini version of being the Queen,” she says. “The BBC mattered to them so much. It is an extraordinary level of responsibility.”

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