Divided management and external pressures would combine to imperil the broadcasterby Roger Mosey / October 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…