AMERICAN senior citizens who fly south for the winter are known as “snowbirds”. There is not yet a term for that small band of British public figures who land fabulous jobs in New York and every now and then return to these shores to give us the benefit of their wisdom. The show off birds, perhaps?

Best known of the bunch is David Miliband, former Labour Foreign Secretary turned head of the International Rescue Committee, an aid organisation that sounds like it should be headquartered on the Thunderbirds’ Tracy Island instead of 122 East 42nd Street.

Next is Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC from 2004-12, now CEO of The New York Times Company. Thompson was on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday. He was deemed such a VIP the producers showed footage of him arriving at New Broadcasting House in London, an honour usually reserved for visiting Prime Ministers and the like. Not that you would confuse Mr Thompson with a politician: the Starbucks coffee cup marked him out as an easy like Sunday morning meeja type.

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Marr began by flattering his former boss. When Thompson arrived at the NYT it was an old fashioned news empire in pretty ropey shape, he said, “a classic case of the inevitable decline of the mainstream media”. But Thompson had turned things around, doubling revenue and attracting five million subscribers. How?

Three things, said Thompson. First, they took on 300 more journalists to boost content. “If you can be different, and this in a way is the Netflix tactic, pour money into content, make great content, then you’ll get customers.” Next, more hiring: this time of software engineers. Third, the running of the main print paper was given over to a handful of people.

With the Sunday papers full of Harry and Meghan leaving the UK to spend most of their time in North America, Thompson was asked if the couple could expect a quieter time from the media there. “Much of the American press is much more high-minded than the British press,” he said, showing he has not lost the ability, common in BBC director generals, of getting right up the noses of the red tops.

Thompson was visiting just as the BBC is living through another period of interesting times. There were murmurings from the Conservatives during the General Election about decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee and forcing the BBC not to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s. Now the party has a large majority it is in a position to make its threats real.

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Decriminalising would cost the BBC £200-£300 million, Thompson estimated. Something else was going on, he feared. “I worry that decriminalisation is a de facto beginning of the abolition of the licence fee but without the courage to say that, and put it out to the public to say whether or not they want a properly funded BBC or not.”

As for scrapping free licences for the over-75s, Thompson recalled the same idea being put to him by the Coalition Government. “They came with a drop dead, we’re going to do this, back in 2010.”

Thompson walked out of the meeting and got on the train home to Oxford. On the way he started to mentally compose his resignation letter.

The phone went: it was Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, asking him to return and continue talking.

Years later, when the Conservatives won a majority on their own, the Chancellor behind the first proposal, George Osborne, came calling again. This time he got his way. By then, Thompson was in New York.

Back to the present day and talk of the future. The BBC, like all “legacy media” had to attract a younger audience, said Thompson. “If we don’t radically change and start thinking about the audience of the future the risk is we age out with a given generation of people and we all are beaten by companies like Netflix.”

Commercial media in the UK, like in most European countries, was in “real trouble”, said Thompson, with local journalism in danger of disappearing. If you were waiting to hear him tackled on the BBC’s part in commercial media’s woes, hard luck.

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Thompson’s time at the head of the BBC coincided not just with introducing ratings giants such as Strictly Come Dancing and Sherlock, and presiding over successes such as the iPlayer. Under his watch the BBC used public money, the licence fee, to fund a massive expansion into digital, taking readers and advertisers from local papers. Yet there was no reference to this, which was disappointing from Marr, who started out in Scottish papers.

Nor was there specific mention of Scotland. Instead, Thompson mused about how the BBC could help the government. “When I listen to the new prime minister talking about his plans to really get serious about investing in the Midlands and the north, and to start projecting this country’s talent, ideas, its potential to the entire world, I think of the BBC and Channel 4 as potentially great allies in that.”

Doubtless Channel 4, whose flagship news show, like the Today programme, is being frozen out by Downing Street, will have something to say about that.