“Can you imagine an American broadcasting company asking an Englishman to take charge?”, the broadcaster Ed Murrow asked on declining Winston Churchill’s wartime offer to become deputy director-general of the BBC.
Murrow’s predictive powers turned out to be less than sharp on this one. Mark Thompson, the former New York Times and ex-BBC chief, has been named the new chief executive and chairman of cable news giant CNN. At the New York Times, Thompson headed the digital transition that out-stripped rivals in subscriptions and pivots to new formats.
He takes over a durable brand beset by a sea of trouble, ranging from falling audiences to firefighting internal revolts over his predecessor’s decision to screen a Donald Trump “town hall” which descended into a bully pulpit — with emphasis on the bully.
Thompson is an outlier in returning to a top job after drifting into a lucrative “plural” existence on advisory boards. An ally who has worked closely with him from his days as a bullish BBC director-general through the financial turnaround of the NYT says he is one of the very few media figures who can plausibly be an editor-in-chief — or lead the business as CEO.
As a personal acquaintance since my early days in BBC radio, I reckon his key strengths are intellectual sharpness without pomposity, and an ability to come up with strategies compelling enough to weather storms and instil a sense of plausible mission. That requirement sits high in the in-tray.
Key figures at CNN differed, noisily, on hosting Trump in a format which ended up with him denouncing a young presenter as a “nasty person” for cross-questioning dubious or downright untrue claims. The encounter hastened the exit of Chris Licht, who had tried to correct a drift into smug tropes and echo-chambers. Like much of the US cable sector, CNN suffers the imperfect storm of fewer viewers — less than half a million daily views — and a remorseless shedding of the crucial working-age demographic. But addressing that means choosing a direction. Is it a place that is liberal in an outward looking sense of US engagement with the world — or fighting brawls in partisan coverage of its domestic territory?
How does it deal with the rise of MSNBC, which appeals to viewers who wear their views on their sleeve, while aiming to be less partisan? America and the world beyond badly needs a prominent home of “accurate, trustworthy news”, as Thompson says. To which I would add, a more open-minded rigour to its on-screen analysis and guests, while revivifying the roster of stars that people will be drawn to watch on TV screens or phones. Falling profits are a symptom of disruption to the old advertising-funded model of commercial TV news with no “magic wand”, as Thompson puts it, at the ready.
The election year ahead in the US, however, is part horror show, as the last Trump outing demonstrated — and part opportunity to move the digital dial. CNN, oddly for an outfit connected to the tech-friendly US elites, lags sorely behind its competitors in this.
The appointment of a Brit to its helm on a rescue mission is also a reminder that warts and all, the BBC is part of a broad ecology of talent that permeates far beyond London W1A. “Thomo” is one of its graduates who is unusual in another regard: the more elevated his status, the greater his readiness to give good counsel or a boost to colleagues who need it. The reverse is more often the case in a world where, as Woody Allen put it of showbusiness: “It’s not so much dog eat dog, as dog doesn’t return other dog’s phone calls.”
Bluntly-spoken and with a terrible sense of style (rustic checked shirts) he once received me in his pomp as New York Times CEO under such time pressure that the promised boardroom lunch was tea and crisps. As he bestrides the CNN airwaves, I hope he keeps that blend of kindness and acuity. It is an edifying British export to the US cousins, whoever wins the TV wars.
Anne McElvoy is executive editor at POLITICO