Former director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, has been delivering a series of lectures at St Peter’s College this week on the theme of ‘Policy, rhetoric, and public bewilderment – The Cloud of Unknowing’.
Thompson, who is Visiting Professor in Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion, stepped down from his role at the BBC in September 2012, and is due to start work as CEO of The New York Times on Monday.
He is the first to take up this professorship which is hosted by Humanitas. Humanitas comprises a series of visiting professorships at Oxford and Cambridge enabling high-profile scholars and experts to speak about issues in the arts and social sciences.
Former BBC Radio 4 controller and Master of St Peter’s Mark Damazer said he was “thrilled” to host Thompson, adding, “It is a very real and personal pleasure.”
BBC Trust chairman and Chancellor of Oxford University Chris Patten, as well as Sir Roger Bannister and current BBC Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams attended the inaugural lecture on Monday.
Thompson used this first lecture to highlight the way in which public language, driven by media and technology, has become more focused on reductive and combative phrases, referring to examples like Sarah Palin’s coining of the term “death panels” in the debate over healthcare form in the US.
He discussed how this made explaining evermore complicated issues, and therefore enacting political reform, increasingly difficult. This concern was revisited in his second lecture where he talked about the tricky relationship between the public and the authority of science, highlighting the climate change debate as an example.
Proceedings at the first lecture were overshadowed by the ongoing controversy surrounding child abuse claims made against the late presenter Jimmy Savile, over which the BBC has come under considerable criticism in recent weeks.
In a statement delivered after his speech Mr Thompson expressed “shock and sadness” and reiterated his non-involvement, saying, “Despite what you all may have read in the papers I had heard none of the stories about Jimmy Savile.” He insisted that the BBC was “doing exactly the right thing” in launching inquiries and said he was a “very strong supporter” of them. A subsequent audience question on the matter was met with widespread disapproval by other audience members, and politely declined by Damazer, who asserted that it was “[his] decision, not Mark’s”.
In his third lecture, in which he talked about the moral rhetoric surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thompson said there was a “dangerously wide” gap between people and policy makers, and called for a “new and different education” to provide the public with the “civic literacy” to engage with issues.
The last event is a symposium chaired by journalist Andrew Marr, where Mr Thompson will be joined by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, former head of the civil service Gus O’ Donnell, and universities minister David Willetts.