Media: We should not ditch Greg Dyke just yet

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK The Independent ran a leading article ruefully ruling out Greg Dyke as a candidate to succeed Sir John Birt as director-general of the BBC. It gave two grounds. First, that the job was very special - the BBC is "the public service broadcaster" - and therefore very special criteria should apply. Second, that appointing someone who had given pounds 50,000 to a political party would justifiably be seen as a manifestation of "sleaze".

I think both these arguments are misconceived. Not because I am a friend of Dyke's and a fellow Labour supporter; nor even because I think he is necessarily the best available candidate for the job. I do however think that those commentators who believe he is disqualified by reason of his substantial financial support for the Labour party have not thought carefully enough about the issues.

To take the "sleaze" point first. Michael Portillo has rightly argued that a blanket disqualification of major political donors from holding senior public appointments is problematic on several grounds. We need high-calibre people working in politics, and they need to be paid decent salaries. We won't get such people if the parties have can't pay them properly, and it will discourage supporters from making contributions if they think their donations rule them out of holding public office.

Of course we need to be able to prevent people "buying" positions; this is why the elaborate processes for such appointments have been set up post-Nolan, and why major donations are now a matter of public record.

Astonishingly, The Independent went close to suggesting that Dyke should have kept quiet about his donations, and then none of this furore would have occurred. This is bizarre to the point of perversity. It is precisely because we are having an open public debate that any potential dangers are being minimised. One of the best features of the current process is that if the BBC Governors do appoint Dyke, we will know that he can stand up to a Labour Government.

And this brings us to the most important reason why there is no "sleaze" factor in Dyke's candidacy. It is not the Labour Government which is making the appointment; it is the Board of Governors, the majority of whom, incidentally, were put there by John Major and Margaret Thatcher. They can be as impartial as they wish. Dyke's payments to Labour can hardly "buy" their votes. Dyke will have to demonstrate to the Governors that his political associations do not compromise the BBC's reputation and credibility.

There is more apparent force to The Independent's other argument - that the BBC is very special, and very special rules must apply. And of course the BBC is special; but we need to be clear in what way it is special, and then establish whether or not Dyke's politics disqualify him from the job.

By virtue of its size, and by virtue of the expectations we have of the BBC for a range and quality of programming, the BBC is the country's most important public service broadcaster. The fact that Dyke gave significant sums of money to Labour has no conceivable relevance to his ability to manage the vast BBC empire. What it comes down to is this - can a man with such public political associations exercise the role of editor-in- chief with the requisite robustness and impartiality?

What we need to know is that the BBC director-general, whatever his or her politics, will defend the BBC's independence and guarantee its journalistic impartiality.

Greg Dyke has a strong record of vigorous, independent and impartial journalism in the commercial public service broadcasters, from his time on LWT's Weekend World through his periods as director of programmes at TV-AM, TVS and LWT. He has long experience of public service broadcasting, and is as well able to meet these "special criteria".

I suspect that the reason newspaper commentators have difficulty with Dyke's political associations is that, operating in their own highly partisan journalistic environments, they have little understanding of the extent to which broadcast journalists can have strong personal political views and still practice professional impartial reporting.

So The Independent leader was wrong on both counts. There is no sleaze factor here; and in so far as special criteria are relevant to being director- general of the BBC, Dyke can meet them. Thankfully, in their handling of the appointment process so far, the Governors seem to recognise this better than The Independent.

Barry Cox is deputy chairman of Channel 4 and was a colleague of Greg Dyke's at LWT