The last thing the BBC needs is a civil war

Divided management and external pressures would combine to imperil the broadcaster

October 16, 2020
Broadcasting House. Photo:  Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images
Broadcasting House. Photo: Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images

It must be the most bizarre job process in Britain. The search for a new chairman or chairwoman of the BBC has been played out across the front pages of the newspapers, with briefings including the assertion that Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, had already been offered the role. This was before any formalities such as an advertisement appearing or the scrutiny of the public bodies that are supposed to assess the fitness of the candidate for such an important post. There may be some political theatre in what’s been happening so far, but the threat to the BBC seems to be a real one. It’s not only about the potential imposition of a hostile chairman, but also the danger that the corporation could be plunged into an unending civil war at a time when it most needs to concentrate on the external threats to its existence.

There is nothing new about a government wanting to bring the BBC to heel through its appointment of a particular chairman. It was what Margaret Thatcher did when she brought in Duke Hussey, a former Times Newspapers executive, to “sort things out” in the 1980s. Harold Wilson appointed Lord Hill with a similar brief in the 1960s, prompting the resignation of some of the governors. The director-general of the time described him as a “vulgarian.” More consensual governments than this one have also not hesitated to make political appointments. When I was on the board of the European Broadcasting Union, I was regularly teased by a Russian colleague about the former roles of Lord Patten. “Ah yes, the BBC is independent,” he would say. “And remind me: was the Chris Patten who chairs the BBC not also formerly the chairman of the Conservative Party?”

But what has changed over the years is the structure of the corporation, which now makes a deeper crisis more probable. For most of its existence, the BBC had a Board of Governors with the chairman at its helm to provide oversight, while the management team ran the business. There were constitutional crises: Alasdair Milne was forced out as DG after a row about a documentary on Northern Ireland, and he later described the governors as “a bunch of amateurs.” Generally the system worked, though, and especially when it had a chairman who combined toughness with a passion for the BBC’s independence—best exemplified by Christopher Bland in the late 1990s.

But the governors were fatally undermined by the row about the reporting of the Iraq War and the Hutton report in 2003. The BBC Trust briefly emerged as the new body representing the interests of the public and holding the executives to account. To emphasise their separation from the management, they set up their headquarters in a completely different building. But it didn’t do them much good. The trust fell between two stools: they were irritating to executives without providing the accountability that the government and public wanted, and they were gone in a decade.

In their place came a new unitary BBC board, with some of the regulation previously done by the trust hived off to the industry-wide body Ofcom. The sound of contented purring could be heard from the director-general of the time, Tony Hall, who had the new chairman David Clementi sitting near to his own office; and their backgrounds—both had former roles at the Royal Opera House—meant they had a lot in common. Clementi hailed the governance changes in his first annual report: “Perhaps for the first time in the BBC’s history, they allow the corporation to speak clearly with a single voice.” Since then, that single voice has barely allowed a peep of self-criticism. Despite the persistent complaints about its Brexit coverage, the chairman thought it was top notch: “BBC news teams have kept audiences up to date on every twist and turn… based on a tireless commitment to impartiality, fact-checking, and in-depth analysis.” In his latest annual report commentary, Clementi’s praise for Hall reaches levels of hyperbole: “During his tenure, Tony has overseen a reinvention of the BBC.”

It was therefore no surprise that the government wanted to inject a little more challenge into the chairmanship. But the floating of Moore as a candidate moved it into extraordinary territory, since he had previously been fined for refusing to pay his TV licence—traditionally a sackable offence at the BBC—and he appeared to have doubts about many of the corporation’s key services. Moore is reported no longer to be in contention. But other names are being dropped into the mix, including Robbie Gibb, who was a BBC editor before becoming Theresa May’s director of communications and subsequently a sharp critic of perceived BBC bias.

People inside the corporation worry that these kinds of names reflect a lack of understanding about the role. “The real issue,” says one, “is more about competence than ideology… some of these names in the frame have never run anything.”

There are other serious miscomprehensions too. It is being put about that the new DG Tim Davie will have to watch his step because he could be sacked by the new chairman. Yet the board structure means that the chair would require the approval of a majority of his colleagues for the decision—which is unlikely in the current circumstances since they only recently appointed Davie.

The fact is that the chairman is first among equals on the BBC board: one of 14 members in total, of whom four are BBC executives (the DG being the CEO) and the rest non-execs. A former senior board member notes that in the commercial world, “the relationship between chair and chief exec is the nexus of effective management, growth and success. What you rarely see in the commercial world is a chairman and chief exec trying to do completely different things.”

If Moore were to have been appointed and decided, for instance, that he thought Radio 2 should be scrapped, then it is possible that the rest of the board could have voted against him 13-1 and it wouldn’t happen. This is not to underestimate the bully-pulpit element of the chairmanship, in which an expression of no confidence in a DG or a particular service would have enormous clout. One seasoned observer believes the outcome would be “the most extreme form of tension imaginable between chairman and DG.”

There are some routes open to the government and a new chairman to change the balance in their favour. A number of board positions are up for renewal soon, and the new non-execs could all be allies of the chairman. But even this isn’t as easy to engineer as it sounds. Four of the non-execs are chosen to represent the nations of the UK, and three of those are nominated by the devolved governments. Nicola Sturgeon is, we must assume, unlikely to appoint someone to meet a specification from Dominic Cummings.

But what this points to is the likelihood of a prolonged civil war. A former senior executive believes it’s a toss-up who would win. “The chairman could build pressure on the DG with intolerable policy proposals until the DG would leave on an issue of principle. Or a chair might be worn down by skilful manoeuvring from the DG until they become so frustrated by failing to achieve anything they give up. Which of these two eventuates is a function of the strength and bloody-mindedness of the characters involved.”

What this risks, of course, is the public interest. The BBC is not perfect, but it is valued by enough of the UK population to make it worth fighting for. Its universal funding means that everyone has a stake in its performance, and they will show very little tolerance for a corporation riven by factions at the top in a way which leaves its staff confused and leaderless. It is perfectly possible for a BBC chairman to be tough on the corporation’s weaknesses but confident in its values and ambitious about its role. That, more than indulging in some cheap politics, is the responsible remit for the times we are in.