Running the BBC
Lord Patten's successor will be transient
A BBC comedy, “W1A”, sends up blame-shifting managers and corporate gobbledygook at the nation's broadcaster. Real life in the upper echelons of the British Broadcasting Corporation has been similar, albeit with fewer laughs. Now the resignation of Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, which governs the Beeb, has thrown up fresh uncertainty.
The timing of Lord Patten's resignation, following a heart bypass operation, is inconvenient. The former member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet was due to oversee talks with politicians over the renewal of the corporation's ten-year royal charter, which expires at the end of 2016. But even those who admired his unruffled style could not claim that his three years at the helm have been an unqualified success.
A laggardly response to revelations of sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile, a TV presenter, looked complacent. The Savile affair also did for George Entwistle, Lord Patten's candidate for the post of director-general, after only 54 days in the job. A digital media project cost 100m and never worked. Few now believe the Trust's multiple remit of representing the interests of viewers as well as regulating and cheerleading for the BBC is sustainable. As new technology and changing viewing habits make the annual licence fee harder to justify, better accountability is called for.
The priority for the next BBC chairman will probably be to find the smoothest way to oversee the transition from the Trust to an outside regulator. Favoured candidates for this evanescent role might include Sir Howard Stringer, erstwhile boss of Sony, or Marjorie Scardino, former chief executive of the Pearson Group (part-owner of The Economist).
Bequeathing the main supervisory role to Ofcom, the regulator which already oversees privacy and taste and decency at the BBC, might appear sensible. But that would create an alarmingly mighty regulator: Ofcom also deals with telecoms as well as all commercial broadcasting.
Some, including the present director-general, Lord Hall, would prefer a more bespoke solution—a kind of “OfBeeb”, to keep Auntie in line and ensure the corporation does not crush commercial competition. Whatever the final outcome, Lord Patten's resignation looks like the end of an era, in which the BBC's good health was guaranteed by benign, if barely accountable, Establishment types.
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