What the BBC needs is a publicly-elected Dyke

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The Independent Culture
IF THIS were America, the post of director-general of the BBC would be an elected one. So, even now, the various candidates for the vacancy caused by the departure of Sir John Birt would be mailing out their manifestos and polishing their slogans. And, I should guess, the man campaigning under the slogan of "I Like Dyke" would not only enjoy the rare privilege of becoming a lesbian icon, but might very well win.

Greg Dyke could make an astute appeal to voters based on his record as both a successful businessman and a programme-maker; he could add a promise to maintain BBC standards while ensuring continued mass popularity; and - not least - he could pledge to use his undoubted influence with a Government that itself stands high in the polls. His unstuffy manner and counter- Oxbridge way of speaking, as though his words were being strained through a thin quilt, would all help him. The fact that he'd given money to help Tony Blair get into Number 10 would be no problem at all. Quite the reverse.

But the job isn't elected. It isn't even, really, appointed. Not in the straightforward sense of a series of interviews being held and the best person for the job being rung up and congratulated, and that's it and done and dusted. The director-generalship is a deeply political post, decided in a wonderfully shadowy way. Right now, long before the process is finished, various governors of the BBC will be coalescing around this candidate or that candidate. And if the chairman of the Beeb, the redoubtable Christopher Bland, doesn't know whom he wants as DG, then I'm a lead singer in a boy band. It's what he's for, after all.

What he may not know is whether he can get his person in (I say "person" out of good habit. In fact, none of the favoured front-runners is a woman). The BBC is not a commercial operation, and Bland cannot simply bully his fellow governors into compliance. And he must know that they themselves are being remorselessly lobbied, not just by the aspirant DGs themselves, but by just about everyone employed by the Corporation. Careers way down the organisation absolutely depend on the outcome of this appointment. There are undoubtedly 29-year-old assistant producers in light entertainment who will be calculating, down to the very month, what the impact on their promotion prospects would be of a Yentocracy, say, versus a Byford regime.

The rest of us, however, are still completely in the dark. What is it that the governors are looking for? His lazier critics have painted the catholic Birt as a son of the Inquisition, demanding true faith from his employees lest they feel the lick of purifying flame. History (in so far as it will be bothered at all) will probably portray him as the man who saved the BBC first from Thatcherism and then from bankruptcy.

But there is no such thing as an institutional settlement for the BBC that will see it through the next 70 years, as it has the last. Things are changing far too quickly. No one has the least idea what the impact of digital TV will be on broadcasters over the next 10 years.

Some favour a nice, slowish evolution towards a 50 per cent share of the market for the main conventional terrestrial channels (as happens in the US). Others believe that the channel-controllers will wake up one morning and find the whole nation watching items on fishing, origami or anal sex on TV sets programmed just for them.

In either context, what will justify the public funding of the BBC will not be how many people are watching BBC1 at 8pm versus how many are tuned into ITV. A ratings war with purely commercial telly is almost exactly the opposite of what the BBC currently needs. Competition in terms of quality? Yes. An eye to the audience? A dumbed-down, sod-the-News-get- me-Cilla bare-knuckle fight? That would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

This is going to be, I grant you, a hard trick to pull off. Persuading the world that quality, innovation and distinctiveness (which are impossible to measure) are more important than straight viewing figures (which aren't) will be a tough battle. It will require an aggressive reaffirmation of the BBC's core role.

Now, if Greg Dyke is on for doing all this, then he will have - I think - the public credibility to pull it off. His appointment, under these circumstances, would appear to be murky only if the Board of Governors were not to be absolutely open about their strategic and personal reasons for having appointed him. And if Greg isn't on for it and yearns (as some Harvard-trained types do) to turn the Corporation into a commercial broadcaster, then he shouldn't get the job anyway.

Oh, and here's another little thought for next time. Why should not the applications of all the candidates for the post of DG, their supporting statements and their plans, be published on the Internet for all of us to look at?

We pay, after all.

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