Paxman would have sorted them

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The Independent Culture
The appointment of Greg Dyke as Director-General of the BBC might seem controversial, but at least it brought to an end a hiring procedure long since farce, if not sitcom. The candidates were scrutinised for personal foibles rather than professional acumen. We learned more about what socks they wore and which political parties they gave money to than about their broadcasting ideas. Dyke was usually described as "brash" - code for non-public school. The board of governors, meanwhile, seemed to conduct the interviews as if hiring a secretary. One 57-year-old was asked whether he didn't think he was a bit aged, and forced to reply that he was only one week older than when the headhunter summoned him for a chat. Another (Alan Yentob) was derided as "too creative" for the job. Creative - what a slur! How will he live it down? If only a fly had been on the wall. It would have made a buoyant docusoap.

Imagine. "It's Thursday morning, and Greg still hasn't heard [we see Dyke staring mournfully out of a Rolls-Royce]. Sir Christopher's been trying to reach Alan on his mobile but can't get through [cut to Yentob trying to get film into a pocket camera]. The board members are in conference [cue various BBC bigwigs in a huddle, watching the cricket on Sky] while Tony is exploring ways to protect the BBC's sporting profile [we see Tony Hall sipping champagne with John Birt in a Wimbledon marquee]."

Beeb-bashing is a hugely popular sport in its own right these days, especially in newspapers with a vested interest in damaging the corporation. But this lengthy and acrimonious piece of headhunting was genuinely embarrassing. In style, it resembled an election. The candidates were discussed and pilloried ad nauseam, their strengths and weaknesses analysed by the friends or enemies enlisted to support or denigrate them. But it was also a sham, since this was a purely bureaucratic appointment, and it looks increasingly as though the favoured candidate - Greg Dyke - was given the inside rail all the way. It was a show trial.

Not long ago, outsiders would have been hard put to name the Director- General. He was a suit; a safe pair of administrative hands somewhere in the far background. When Terry Wogan started making D-G jokes on his morning radio programme, it was a nice comic routine: the Director-General was not a person but an office, a faintly ridiculous headmaster whom one could mock with easy confidence. This has all changed. We seem, now, to treat the whole saga much as we handle the appointment of a new football manager or cricket coach. We seem to believe that huge organisations can be shaped in the image of a single leader, though the idea that a chief executive is an all-important miracle-worker is one of those Wall Street fictions useful mainly in negotiations over mergers or golden handshakes. Are we so far steeped in the cult of personality that we find it hard to debate with any seriousness the exact role we want the BBC to play in our lives, while becoming so stupidly heated about who gets the top job?

Come to think of it, maybe it would be better if in future the Director- Generalship were the subject of an authentic election. It's a public corporation, after all, and our voices should matter. The candidates could prepare manifestos and announce them, perhaps leaning against a kitchen unit, on Video Nation. One might pledge to keep the cricket whatever it costs; another might promise to abolish the licence fee (or double it). Or beef up the news; drop all celebrity chat shows; ban violent children's cartoons; or scrap the watershed. Some might suggest devolution. Others would fight to preserve the union. The would-be D-Gs could appear on Question Time to air their views and explain their vision of the future, or be put through the mill by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.

An election such as this would at least tell us roughly what the rival applicants stood for, and whether the corporation was safe in their hands. Dyke, Yentob, Hall, Eyre - did anyone outside White City have an inkling of what these grand teletubbies would do to our TV habits, given a chance? Alan Yentob suggested that profitability need not be the key measure of success, which was a good and important point (the BBC might as well set up pornography channels if it wants to make easy cash) but one which seems to have ruled him out. Otherwise, it's hard to tell.

A proper and spirited public election would be an enjoyable process, and might even give the nation some say in the television it wants to watch. As it stands, the only opinion polls the executives have are viewing figures, which show only what we watch, not what we like or want (or need). We could vote over the telephone, as in the Eurovision song contest or You Decide. The suspense would be unbearable.

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