BBC can’t be secretive over new DG
LORD Patten, BBC Trust sources have been suggesting, may try to appoint a new director general by the uncomplicated expedient of ringing up and begging.
But private genuflection is hardly appropriate for a job at the BBC, which the British people feel we own because we’re all obliged to pay for it. The ‘no taxation without representation’ principle points to a different approach.
That is not to say it is time to vote for a director general. It is a professional job at an impartial broadcaster: the necessary politicisation of electioneering would rather defeat the purpose.
But the trust, composed of 12 mostly undistinguished individuals, must acknowledge how wrong it was in selecting George Entwistle, an untried man who had risen without leaving much trace at the BBC.
It would be wrong, though, if the trust thought it had been laid low by a freak wave of events. As the media climate is warmed by boiling social media, such freaks are becoming regular occurrences: the storm over the Ross/Brand offensive on-air phone call to an actor’s granddaughter that swept away the respected boss of BBC Radio 2; the phone-hacking scandal that forced a change of management at News International and more.
And of course there was the Savile child abuse scandal, and its extraordinary chain of consequence and error that led to Entwistle’s on-air resignation.
In picking Entwistle, in the secretive process supposedly required of public appointments, the trust substituted its judgment for the media mob. It was the wrong approach: it should have had the sense to publish its shortlist of candidates; allowed them, in a modest way, to air some of their ideas.
Patten should also have allowed contenders to be interviewed in the media after shortlisting: which might have uncovered Entwistle’s inability to contend with John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4.
The most important part of being DG is not, as Patten thinks, to be a former programme-maker, but rather to be able to lead the BBC against political and media attack.
Secretive systems and introverted decision-making are more likely to produce worse outcomes, in the media or anywhere else.
In many newspapers, the checks and balances on owners and executives are weak — readers identify with their papers so strongly that, for instance, even Friday’s publication about obscure do-gooders who use unisex loos will not be enough to dent the Daily Mail’s sales. But if tabloid editors feel invulnerable, answerable in this case only to a single viscount, it is no wonder that these things happen.
The BBC, in contrast, has to be responsive. It is not unknown for newspapers to incorrectly label somebody as a paedophile; but for the BBC to do so was always going to require resignations.
Now, Patten, having got the director general’s appointment wrong once before, may already feel it is right to step aside as BBC Trust chairman if he can find a solid DG this time.
But can he even do that? If Patten conducts the process in secret, with a couple of phone calls and behind-closed-doors interviews, he runs the risk of making a similar error. Running the BBC is a public office and candidates should compete for it openly.
— The Guardian, London