Mary Dejevsky: Top jobs now are too big for anyone

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The Independent Online

When the BBC Director-General, George Entwistle, called a news conference to present a belated response to the Jimmy Savile affair, the new face of British public broadcasting looked in dire need of media training. He did not know where to look; he assumed some strange expressions; he snapped at his own Corporation's reporter; his glasses were odd. Referring to his time as head of "Vision" – which, as he deigned to translate, meant overall responsibility for television – he seemed to suggest he would have breached his remit if he had been too curious about Newsnight's forward planning.

My reaction was unfair. In the job barely a month, Entwistle, right, was caught in one of the biggest firestorms to hit the Corporation in recent years. But his seemingly hesitant response, of which this news conference was just a part, poses a much broader question. Would anyone else have done a better job?

In the UK, there is just a small clutch of jobs of the order of BBC Director-General, but they all enjoy – or threaten – a high public profile and prompt instant judgements about competence on the part of people mostly unqualified to make them. One such post would be Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a job of which Bernard Hogan-Howe seems so far to be making a better fist than his two predecessors did.

Another, particularly sensitive, example is Archbishop of Canterbury. A decision on who should succeed Rowan Williams has been delayed, apparently because of disagreement among the 16 members of the Crown Nominations Commission.

Also at the shortlist stage and supposedly suffering a dearth of suitable candidates is the contest to be the next Governor of the Bank of England. Of all the names mooted at the outset, only four, it appears, have survived or left their hats in the ring, and of these only two – Lord Turner, currently chairman of the Financial Services Authority, and the present deputy, Paul Tucker – seem to be in with a chance.

For my part, I sigh a little at the thought of Turner adding to his string of top jobs, as I did when Lord Patten was appointed to the BBC Trust. Are there really so few individuals of the right calibre that these luminaries are called upon to occupy more than one? Or could it be that selectors are too demanding, just because the likes of Patten and Turner are there? Or that shortlists reflect the profile of the selectors and the perceived shortcomings of the previous incumbent, rather than what is actually required? Is it not possible to divide what is essential from what can be learnt?

One solution to the top job conundrum was found when Sir Gus (now Lord) O'Donnell retired last year as head of the Civil Service. His job was split, with the post of Cabinet Secretary hived off. And you could argue that the election of a Coalition government has divided the responsibilities of Prime Minister. But there is room for other answers.

How about a recognition that some organisations have grown too big and too complex to be managed successfully? Or a greater public acceptance of a few rough presentational edges, so long as the substance is sound?

I would bet that next time George Entwistle presents his case, he will look and sound every bit the BBC Director-General.