Can the BBC resist calls for an external regulator?

One of the most urgent tasks for the corporation’s new chairman will be to address stinging criticisms of the way it is governed, writes Torin Douglas

There’s been no shortage of advice for the candidates interviewed this week for the chairmanship of the BBC. Everyone seems to have a view about the BBC’s future – not least because the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) has been soliciting them. Its Charter Review leaflets and websites are headed “Your BBC, Your Say” and responses must be in this month.

As it turned out, some of the most-fancied names did not need the advice, because they didn’t make the shortlist. The most embarrassing – for The Times, at least – was Richard Lambert, former Financial Times editor.

In an echo of the famous “curse of Hello!”, which put a blight on the marriages of many of those who invited the magazine into their lovely homes, The Times has found its advice spurned twice over the appointments of BBC directors-general. Last time round, it campaigned ferociously against Greg Dyke, only to be rebuffed, and last week it declared that Lambert was “clearly the best qualified to steer the BBC through choppy waters”.

In a front-page article it declared: “Six revealed on shortlist for BBC chairman” (though it named seven, because no one seems clear whether or not Lord Burns, who is advising the DCMS about the BBC Charter, is a candidate). One of those on its list was Lambert, who was then endorsed in a lengthy leading article, presumably penned – or at least inspired – by Times’ editor Robert Thompson, who worked closely with Lambert at the FT.

It said the two front-runners seemed to be Lambert and Michael Grade, former head of BBC Television and Channel 4, now chairman of Camelot and Pinewood Studios. And it made no secret of its preference, expressly damning Grade’s apparent qualifications:

“A contender with too much experience of the sharp end of broadcasting may be as inappropriate as one with too little. The BBC does not require a chairman who assumes that he would himself be a rather good director-general… An effective chairman will be firm and fraternal, diplomatic as well as decisive, more a quiet strategist than the quintessential showman.”

Unfortunately, there was a communications breakdown between the paper and its firm, fraternal and diplomatic favourite, who already knew he was not on the shortlist and had tried to tell them. The FT then reported that another of the six – the former head of the Independent Television Commission Patricia Hodgson – was not on the list either, and nor was the enigmatic Lord Burns.

By the start of this week, Grade was emerging as the one to beat, together with Barbara Young, a former vice-chairman of the BBC, the only one of the tipped names with the advantage of having been a governor and knowing her way round the BBC corridors. Having been rejected by The Times’ tipsters, Grade found himself being promoted in another newspaper, the Evening Standard, under the headline: “Can this man save the BBC?”

In a full-page article, the veteran Panorama reporter Tom Mangold suggested a consensus was emerging as to the person who should lead the BBC out of the “long dark night of the Gilligan/Kelly/Today programme fiasco”: he said Grade was the one man for the job. “Unusually for a top broadcasting executive, he has always been popular within television, where he is liked for his élan, an indomitable cheerfulness, incurable optimism and a true passion for television programmes,” wrote Mangold. “He has the charm, the charisma and the communications skills, allied to a shrewd intellect.”

Whoever gets the job will have to hit the ground running. The most immediate task is to appoint a director-general to replace Greg Dyke. But almost as quickly the new chairman will have to lead the BBC’s response to the Charter Review debate. This should have been delivered – like everyone else’s – by the end of March, but given the lack of a chairman and director-general, the BBC has been given an extension until the summer.

In particular, the new chairman will have to address criticisms of the BBC’s governance. How can its board of governors act as both regulator and champion of the BBC, especially as the drawbacks of that dual role have been exposed during the Kelly affair?

The candidates will have prepared for this question in the knowledge that many outside the BBC believe that the time has come for the corporation to be externally regulated, like commercial broadcasters. This view was summed up last week by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in its evidence to the review:

“The IPA believes that the Hutton Inquiry highlighted the inability of the BBC governors to police the corporation’s activities dispassionately and, instead, recommends the abolition of the present board of governors in favour of a similar set-up to C4, with a board of directors responsible for operational decisions and strategy, and Ofcom assuming the role of independent regulator.”

As the chairman’s exam paper might put it – “Discuss”.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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