Details man Mark Thompson completes hat-trick by taking on CNN challenge

Things just may be looking up at last for CNN as centrist media titan takes the reins

Mark Thompson was previously director-general of the BBC and chief executive of The New York Times. Reuters
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There is a deceptive steeliness to Mark Thompson – sorry, Sir Mark, it takes some getting used to, he was knighted in June. He smiles a lot, nods, his eyes sparkle mischievously, but behind that bearded jolly exterior, his mind is whirring away and his own view is forming.

That’s not to say he isn’t good company, he is. When he was director-general of the BBC from 2004 to 2012, I found him to be one of the most approachable chiefs of that corporation I’ve known.

Grounded, not mired in its peculiar love of management jargon and acronyms; someone who spoke directly, who made clear that despite the organisation’s strengthening of its digital products offering and the cutting of thousands of jobs on his watch, the priority for him was always content, and his passion was news.

I remember being impressed with his range of knowledge about the place’s vast output. It would be easy for him, as DG, to focus only on the big picture, strategic stuff and to say he didn’t have a clue when a matter regarding an aspect of programming was raised, that it was for an underling – he would not be the first or last BBC boss to do so – but no, he was across the subject.

In fact, it was that aspect which detained him, giving the impression that the loftier, political side of running a worldwide public service broadcaster was not so arresting. He was a good disarmer, was Mark.

He will need to be again, as he takes charge of another creaking, sprawling global media news network. He did it for a second time, heading The New York Times after the BBC. Now, Thompson is rolling up his sleeves again – he does not do formality, he is direct and down-to-earth, in manner and in dress – and taking on the might that was CNN.

In a way, when his appointment as chief executive and editor-in-chief was announced, the temptation was to ask, what took them so long? This is someone, after all, who has managed with distinction two of the world’s centrist media giants.

A hat-trick in another similarly positioned legacy media provider facing an uncertain future after a starry past, seemed a natural step.

He's doing so, though, at an age, 66, when other Brits of his ilk are thinking about accepting the gracious sinecure of master of an Oxbridge college and/or chairing a think tank and institutional board or two. He’d been out of the cauldron for three years, after The New York Times.

He was not doing very much, living in a vast apartment on the Upper West Side with his writer wife, Jane Blumberg (her father, Baruch, shared the Nobel Prize for his research into hepatitis B, which led to the development of a vaccine for it). They have three children.

Money was not a driver – from 2017 to 2019 alone he received $17.9 million as chief executive of The New York Times.

Thompson is not the sort to put his feet up. He bristles with energy and it was going nowhere. Then, there was a call from David Zaslav, chief of Warner Bros Discovery that has owned CNN since 2022, in the week in June when he was honoured by King Charles III.

The pair knew each other when Zaslav headed Discovery and they did deals with Thompson’s BBC. Zaslav had an immediate problem: CNN had no one fixed at the helm; Chris Licht, a veteran TV producer tasked with steering it, had been fired.

Licht had lasted 13 months, during which he failed to arrest a decline in ratings and staff morale dipped. The final straw was a highly negative profile in The Atlantic.

Apart from questions about Licht’s ability, his overriding problem could be summed up in one word: Trump. When Trump was on the stump and in power, CNN did well. It became an antidote to Fox News, unafraid to pick apart the president’s sayings and deeds.

He would rail against the channel for pumping out “fake news”; they would make a virtue of disbelieving him and sticking to “truth”. It was a stance that served them well – in 2017, CNN made a billion dollars. Since then, it’s been on a downwards trajectory, failing to make much of an impression in the Joe Biden years.

Zaslav took the view it was too activist, too left, he wanted a station that was straight-down-the-middle editorially, believing there was a ready audience for objective news. Licht could not deliver; now it’s Thompson’s turn.

Thompson inherits a force of 4,000 journalists and a situation not unlike that he encountered at the BBC. He used to criticise the BBC newsroom for being “too liberal” and showing an anti-Tory bias.

Partly, that was not helpful since the ruling party that decided the BBC’s funding was Tory but that was not his prime motivation, that was to produce accurate, unprejudiced news.

On paper, he appears the typical insider – private school, then Oxford, followed by the BBC. In truth, he is more of an outsider. His mother was Irish and as a child he spoke with an Irish accent, so much so his parents made him have elocution lessons to drop the twang and speak more refined English as they thought it would stand him in good stead career-wise.

He went to Stonyhurst, a Catholic, Jesuit boarding school in the North of England. He is still a devout attender at weekly Mass.

His solid upbringing coupled with a sharp intellect gave him an easy self-confidence. At the BBC, he was able to tiptoe through office politics, getting on with everyone, avoiding trouble. That, plus a rare ability to marshal and to organise, marked him out. By 30, he was producing what was then the flagship Nine O’Clock News.

At CNN, aside from the positioning issue to consider, there is a more fundamental, even existential, question, which is the network’s long-term appeal. Cable TV, across the board, is in trouble, with fewer subscribers and a decline in advertising.

Drawing in younger viewers, who prefer to put their faith in bite-sized chunks of news from all sorts of unreliable sources on social media is a tough ask.

Thompson moves in next month. From the off, he's made sure there’s no doubt who is in charge of everything. He’s the top businessperson as chief executive and top editorial as editor-in-chief.

That’s one potential source of conflict and disarray dealt with. And, in a note to CNN staff, he wrote, “I’ve spent most of the past 20 years figuring out with colleagues at some of the world’s other great news operations not just how to survive the revolution, but to thrive in it and gain new audiences and revenue streams. I aim to do the same at CNN. It won’t be my plan that wins the day but our plan, the plan we devise and implement together.”

It's not easy, winning over dispirited, suspicious journalists and that was well-received. Things just may be looking up at last for CNN.

Published: September 05, 2023, 1:47 PM
Updated: September 12, 2023, 8:16 AM