Has the BBC handed Patten a poisoned chalice?

andrew

Chris Patten will need to call on his experiences in Hong Kong if he is to make his mark as the new BBC Trust chairman.

The likely new BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten gave evidence to the House of Commons media select committee last week as part of the scrutiny for his appointment.

In response to MPs’ questioning, Patten had an important balance to strike – be sensitive to the political nuances around the role of the BBC in British life, but alert to the possibilities and demands for change.

The former Hong Kong governor was quick to emphasise his reformist credentials, informing the select committee that “the BBC is not a perfect organisation”. He also demonstrated his political savvy by offering to resign the Tory whip in the House of Lords in a gesture towards a non-partisan chairmanship.

Patten will need both that reforming zeal and his finely tuned political antenna to tackle a sizeable intray.

So, what are the priorities for the next chairman of the BBC? First up is the governance of the organisation he will chair.

The BBC Trust has had an uncomfortable role at the top of the state broadcaster since it was formed under Michael Grade to replace the old-style system of governors. The trust had a difficult birth when Grade himself promptly left for ITV. Its remit – conflicted between part cheerleader, part regulator, part champion for the licence fee payer – was never quite resolved by Patten’s predecessor, Sir Michael Lyons.

In a neatly timed welcome to this new world, the House of Lords select committee on communications announced its own inquiry into the governance and regulation of the BBC last week. This gives Patten, commercial competitors, BBC management and politicos all a chance at the start of his tenure to help frame the future role and remit for the BBC Trust.

Once that’s resolved, Patten can get stuck into the future size and shape of the BBC. This was a major debate in the run-up to the last election but was deftly moved to the back burner by director-general Mark Thompson with a licence fee settlement agreed in October which set the BBC’s funding to 2016.

CHRIS_PATTEN
Fierce debate around the future size and scope of the BBC remains in play. For the new chairman, a clear sense of what the broadcaster is for and how far its footprint should extend will be the single most important issue to resolve

However, fierce debate around the future size and scope of the BBC remains in play. For the new chairman, a clear sense of what the broadcaster is for and how far its footprint should extend will be the single most important issue to resolve. So far, the BBC management’s recent strategy review – Putting Quality First – has promised to do “fewer things better”.

However, there’s little evidence that its actions are consistent with its words. For a start, it’s committed to more things, not fewer. Take radio, for instance. The BBC proposed fewer things, such as closing 6 Music and the Asian Network, but has since reversed both those decisions. And S4C, broadband, local TV and the World Service all get a mention in the new licence fee deal.

Commercial competitors will know from long experience that the BBC never closes services down voluntarily. At the same time, it is proposing that BBC local radio morphs into national sports station 5 Live. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive to both the coalition government’s support for local media and the BBC’s desire to widen the overall reach of its services, given local radio is its only service specifically aimed at older licence fee payers.

In a similar fashion, BBC Worldwide’s remit remains unclear. On the one hand, the new chairman will want to encourage BBC Worldwide’s growth via new global licensing deals, while on the other hand commercial competitors will cry foul if the BBC forecloses opportunities or dominates nascent markets.

Not everything will be straightforward on the key services either. In television, the BBC will be competing against a resurgent commercial sector. For ITV, product placement promises some modest additional revenue to sit comfortably alongside the growth in demand from advertisers seen throughout 2010, for both quality drama like Downton Abbey or entertainment shows such as The X-Factor that pull in a large number of viewers .

Aside from the big questions of governance and strategy, Patten will need to think about the BBC’s leadership. Management has had a difficult couple of years but succession planning, pay and compliance will all help define the next chairmanship.

At the same time, scrutiny will remain on talent costs with the fall-out from Jonathan Ross’s phone call antics in ’Sachsgate’ still influencing the public’s attitude towards our public service broadcaster.

Still, if anyone has the CV to tackle these challenges it’s Patten. Having deftly engineered the transition of free-market Hong Kong into the totalitarian Chinese state, he undoubtedly has the skills to manage the state-funded BBC so that it sits more comfortably alongside free-to-air commercial broadcasters in a diverse and plural UK media landscape.

Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre. You can contact him at andrew@radiocentre.org

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