MEDIA HEADLINER: BBC's young fogey set to take charge of Channel 4's image. Will C4's new head keep up its mischievous tradition? Alasdair Reid investigates

Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of Channel 4, is about as

mischievous as a rubber chicken. Occasionally cheeky, yes. Good for a

laugh, undoubtedly. A thoroughly sound chap, certainly. But


This is something of a departure for a television channel which has

brand values based, more or less, on mischief. All three of Channel 4's

previous bosses - Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Grade and Michael Jackson -

were, in their own ways, iconoclastic outsiders. Even Grade, who comes

from a showbiz dynasty, was dubbed Britain's pornographer-in-chief by

the Daily Mail.

Thompson, despite some impressive programming credentials, is a very

different entity. In fact, he's a bit of a young (well, young-ish at 44)

fogey. Worried by his image when news of his appointment broke, he

nipped out and bought a pink shirt. Now that really is mischievous.

Thompson, who left his post as the BBC's director of television in

December to tend his winter brassicas for three months before joining

Channel 4 in the spring, came up through the BBC graduate trainee

scheme. He has known nothing but life in the corporation's officer class

- the people who used to be known as BBC brahmins.

Brahmins are hugely accomplished, patrician in a good egg sort of a way

and have a nice line in self-deprecating wit while always getting what

they want.

Thompson's educational background is classic brahmin - the Jesuit-run

Stoneyhurst College, then to Merton College, Oxford, where he attained a

First but still found time to edit Isis, that most prestigious of

student rags.

In the run-up to Christmas, Thompson got some very good press


He was presented as safe, when he's potentially the channel's biggest

break with its cultural heritage. Is his appointment further evidence of

Channel 4 maturing as a broadcaster? Will it become more "small c"


Thompson's fan club points out that he's no stranger to quirky


For instance, he takes credit for allowing The League of Gentlemen

access to our television screens. Thompson is also reported to have said

that he would have sanctioned broadcast of Channel 4's notorious Brass

Eye programme last year. But there are other possible question


Andy Barnes, Channel 4's commercial director, says: "Mark clearly

doesn't know anything about the advertising world, but he's keen to

learn and he wants to see agencies and clients. And I'd strongly contest

any suggestion that Channel 4 is likely to become conservative with a

'small c'. Our difference is our difference - that won't change. In

fact, I think it might be more interesting to speculate on whether Mark

will combine the very best of the qualities of Michael Grade and Michael


Thompson is unashamedly a BBC man. His ultimate ambition is to be the

corporation's director-general. He's a great mate of the BBC's

director-general Greg Dyke - and is said to have sought Dyke's blessing

before accepting the Channel 4 offer. Surely, what we have here is the

media equivalent of football clubs loaning out bright young prospects to

lower league clubs, so they can get more first-team experience.

Should advertisers be worried? Chris Hayward, the TV director of Zenith

Media, says: "Channel 4 is a sharp organisation and it presents an image

that people want to buy into - edgy, dynamic and a younger profile. The

reality doesn't always match, but it absolutely has to sustain that


Andy Roberts, the executive UK buying director of Starcom Motive, says

we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Thompson is not just a

programmes and ideas man - he's one of the best around.

He says: "Channel 4 needs someone with a commercial understanding but

who isn't too commercial - if that makes any sense. And so what if he

has further ambitions? It means he will absolutely have to prove

himself. He's about to take control of that most precious of things in

the current marketplace - a distinctive TV brand. Yes, it's a challenge,

but from where he sits it must seem incredibly exciting too. I can't see

a downside to be honest."

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