Broadcasting: Does the BBC need a director-general, and who will dare apply for the post?

Responsibility for 28,000 staff and a vast daily output is a tough brief. Tim Luckhurst on a poisoned chalice
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The Independent Online

The word among senior executives at BBC Television Centre is that the Channel 4 chief executive, Mark Thompson, remains favourite to be the new director-general. Thompson's insistence that he "absolutely intends" to stay at Channel 4 and "will turn down any approach from the BBC" is deemed comparable to Bill Clinton's denial of sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. One source says: "It really depends what you think he meant by 'intends'. People are still pretty convinced that if Mark Thompson was made an offer he would accept it." But no matter who emerges as Greg Dyke's successor, a more interesting question is occupying the minds of those who will be his senior lieutenants: does the BBC need a director-general at all?

At the end of his memoir The Harder Path, the former DG John Birt recalls wondering whether the job was worth doing. Birt was the most driven DG the BBC ever had, but even he found the responsibility onerous. Some of his old colleagues consider Birt fortunate. They observe that Alasdair Milne was forced out, Michael Checkland brutally undermined and Dyke sacked. In this version of BBC history, Hugh Greene was the last DG to flourish.

Insiders say that Dyke recognised the inherent flaw in the job. The DG is technically responsible for everything the BBC does. He has the same responsibilities as a newspaper editor. But the comparison is false. No editor employs 28,000 staff or publishes 15 entirely separate editions simultaneously. Colleagues who advised him during the Hutton inquiry say that Dyke considered it a point of principle that he should not be expected to know what one correspondent had said in one interview on the Today programme. For him that was not a sensible expectation. The BBC's governors concluded that politicians and public were entitled to expect Dyke to know just that. So another very gifted leader was lost.

This, say senior BBC sources, can easily happen again. The DG's job has become one that chews up and spits out talented people. One source says: "There are silly expectations about what a DG can know and control. With the vast number of channels and services the BBC provides, it is not realistic to expect one person to understand it all." Another points out: "There is widespread understanding that the board of governors has survived unchanged from a gentler era and that the Gilligan affair showed it was inadequate for modern demands. Some of us are applying the same logic to the post of DG."

The incoming BBC chairman, Michael Grade, is known to favour clearer separation between governors and managers. He is expected to support the appointment of governors with real expertise in broadcasting and journalism. Some executives believe he should reconsider the role of the DG as well. Suggestions include formal separation of the posts of chief executive and editor-in-chief, enhancing the power of the deputy director-general, and replacing the entire system with a cabinet in which heads of department would take collective responsibility for decisions.

A BBC source says: "It is really the editor-in-chief function that is a problem. Hutton revealed a problem in our journalism that needs to be dealt with. There is a feeling abroad among staff that the BBC needs strong editorial leadership. It is our editorial standards that have failed." For some, that means a DG with proven journalistic credentials, perhaps Thompson or the director of BBC Radio and Music, Jenny Abramsky.

Others argue that editorial responsibility must be devolved to individual service heads. They point out that no individual can watch or listen to more than a tiny fraction of the BBC's output. Some believe the tradition that ultimate responsibility resides with the DG makes errors more likely. One says: "When everything is referred up, nobody is responsible. That's what happened with Gilligan's story. Nobody took charge so the director-general got sacked. That is demented." Another insider explains: "Being editor-in-chief and chief executive is too much for one individual. Greg Dyke had already begun to tweak the system in recognition of that. It was why he appointed Mark Byford to be his deputy. It was a shame he didn't do it sooner. An editor-in-chief like Byford or Mark Thompson would have stopped Hutton before it happened."

There is no suggestion that Grade will refuse to appoint a DG. One senior source says: "This was a debate that was never mentioned until Hutton. You have to be careful not to let a hard case make bad law. Someone has to take responsibility for what is broadcast." But during the reform of corporate governance that must happen in parallel with charter renewal, a case will be made for real change at the top. The BBC can't afford to lose another DG. Some insiders even fear that the most suitable candidates will refuse to apply.

Change may begin immediately. The formal process of choosing a successor to Dyke will restart as soon as Grade takes up the chairman's post two weeks tomorrow. A preliminary shortlist has already been drawn up but it is thought not to include to include Mark Thompson or his predecessor at Channel 4 Michael Jackson. Grade will be keen to ensure that he can take his pick from a full range of applicants. That may mean redefining the terms of the job to attract the best possible talent.