Representatives of the BBC have appeared before select committees of the House of Commons dozens of times in the last two years. Gruelling gladiatorial battles, these sessions take months of preparation – at least if the rules of notice are observed, though they frequently are not.
Occasionally hapless BBC officials have been given as little as three days to prepare for a roasting, rather than the month of preparation to which they are supposedly entitled.
Is the BBC really more deserving of these endless grillings than, for example, the banks? Or Paul Flowers, former chairman of the Co-op bank? Or the companies that argued for the privatisation of Royal Mail, then profited from its underselling? Does the BBC pose more of a threat to the nation than the firms to which (incredibly) we have outsourced army recruitment and which have failed to meet their targets?
Of course it has made mistakes; all organisations do. The press, which now sees the BBC as a direct competitor, has fuelled the frenzy, and ferociously attacks anybody connected with the BBC in a way that we ought to find chilling.
But the BBC remains central to the British public’s everyday life. Old-fashioned television watching has remained far more important than people believed it would, and the BBC’s radio output is peerless and unique in the world; the corporation is seen as a great British success abroad, created the only British-originated websites in the world’s top 100, and is one of the world’s top news sources.
And while Chris Patten’s unexpected and sad departure from the BBC leaves the corporation with acute problem, it also presents an opportunity for the corporation to save itself.
Changing of the guard
Patten was, despite his perceived mistakes and the beating he has taken for them, a heavyweight political player in the first rank of public service. Having helped to mould Hong Kong into the open and thriving place it has become, to remake the Northern Irish Police, and to lead the EU, he knew how to get what he needed. He is also a convivial, charming, clever man.
Keeping Patten as chair until after the 2015 election was part of a strategy to keep the BBC from becoming a political football as much as possible. That he was prepared to go on taking flak (the Savile report is still to come in, for example) was a testament to his stamina and was designed to secure the BBC against the oncoming storm.
That hope is now dashed, and a new chair must be appointed – a very delicate political task at the best of times. But the upcoming Scottish referendum and an unpredictable general election – one that promises to be peculiarly nasty both in its conduct and its consequences – are both deeply ominous. The speed with which the proposal to decriminalise nonpayment of the Licence Fee blew up, with no sensible political reflection from any party about the consequences for the BBC’s future, showed how febrile our politics currently is.
Patten’s job in all this was simply to hold the tiller until another settlement was reached. Adding to the loss of his steady hand, the scrupulously honourable Nicholas Kroll, who has nurtured the BBC Trust into life, is about to retire, and will also need replacing.
The complex governance of the BBC Trust takes time to understand So one response might be that what is needed is continuity and a safe pair of hands. Diana Coyle (the vice-chair) might be persuaded to stay on; Terry Burns, who steadied Channel 4, has led what feels like everything, and knows everybody, might be called on to steady the ship.
It would be good to see a woman appointed – but above all the BBC needs the right person for one of the hardest battles in its history. Because the political climate has never been so inhospitable, the corporation needs to be more confident and more original than ever.
The task ahead
The new chair must have a passionate belief in the value and values of the corporation. They must be uncompromising about BBC independence, and a wily, strategic game player. The BBC has to understand the case against it – and believe in the case for itself.
In April, I gave a speech to corporation staff at a BBC News Festival. All of the other luminaries who spoke were rather gloomy about the future of the BBC. I said that the corporation remains at the centre of our national temperament, and is a crucial part of Britain’s global profile. The battle is on for its survival – but every story put out by the news teams who listened to me made the argument that would help win that battle.
So the new chair of the Trust needs to be well-connected, sociable and open-minded. They need to have independent judgement, yet be alert to the mood of the times and help shape the BBC anew. They must help the corporation reinvent its central values (as it has always had to) and reapply them in a changing world.
The BBC is a precious part of the nation’s political, intellectual and cultural life. It is ours. Accordingly, the new chair must cherish the BBC – and since this is 2014, they will also need the hide of a rhinoceros.