Greg Dyke on Broadcasting
There must be a better way to run the Corporation than this
Monday 13 March 2006
Leaving the BBC alone may be no bad thing. It has been an incredibly successful organisation over the past 50-odd years, and it could be argued that radical change isn't needed, that it should simply be allowed to continue to evolve. The only problem with that position is that the one significant change proposed in the Green Paper, the setting up of a BBC trust to replace the BBC governors, is arguably a worse system of governance than the current set-up.
I have no great love of the current system, whereby a group of the great and the good, some talented, some terrible, and most knowing very little about the media, is appointed by the secretary of state to be responsible for running the BBC and for its regulation.
Before she published her Green Paper, the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, sought outside advice on the governance of the BBC from Ofcom and a special panel, chaired by Lord Burns, which she set up to look at the issue. They both recommended that one body being responsible for both management and regulation was no longer tenable, and that a new outside regulator, an Of-BBC, should take over the latter role. This system would then allow the board of the BBC to be responsible for running the organisation, as most boards are, and also act as its cheerleader.
I have little doubt that this would have become government policy except for the opposition from within the BBC, particularly from the current chairman, Michael Grade, who threatened to resign if that happened. This in itself was odd because when I was reading Michael Grade's MacTaggart lecture on the BBC for last week's column I discovered that he had argued exactly the opposite case back in 1992. Then he wanted a single regulator to cover the whole of the television industry.
He said, and I quote, "the governors, by involving themselves so deeply in the management of the BBC, can no longer be arm's-length regulators of the service as well. I fully support the recent proposal that there should be a single regulatory body for all terrestrial television." So how come, when it came to be Michael Grade's turn to be chairman of the BBC, he completely reversed his position?
Given his threat to resign, Tessa Jowell had little option to go along with him, as losing a second chairman of the BBC after Gavyn Davies's departure following the Hutton inquiry would have been really embarrassing for her. But from my perspective she's got it seriously wrong. The trouble is that the fudge on governance that was in the Green Paper satisfies almost nobody, and much more worryingly won't work in the best interests of either the BBC or the viewers and listeners.
In any organisation the most important relationship is the one between the chairman and the chief executive, whether it be a business or a public body. Ms Jowell's proposals make this relationship inside the BBC very difficult. I know from my own experience how much a director general needs the support, advice and trust of a chairman, but in the proposed system there is inbuilt conflict between the two.
There will be two chairmen - the chairman of the trust and the chairman of the management board - and they are to have different roles.
Grade will chair the trust and he has decided that director general Mark Thompson will chair the management board, so Thompson will effectively be both chief executive and chairman of that part of the BBC.
But what happens when the trust and the management board, which will have its own non-executive directors, disagree on policy as they inevitably will at times? It is by no means clear which part of the BBC makes the final decision.
In future there will be two BBC bureaucracies, one checking on the other. Since Grade joined there has already been a significant growth in the number of people working in governance at the BBC, a policy carried out at the same time as people are being made redundant across the rest of the organisation.
What I fear most about the new structure is that it will prevent the BBC making those radical moves - such as moving into the online world or creating Freeview - that have always kept it ahead of the game. Decisions like that will simply be too difficult to take and take too long to get through the system.
BBC Northern Ireland's guilty secret
For three nights last week BBC 2 ran a fascinating series in which Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together perpetrators and victims of violence in Northern Ireland, much as he did with his Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid. I found it incredibly emotional and revealing.
It was made by BBC Northern Ireland, which itself has had to do some serious soul-searching about its position in Northern Ireland in recent years. One of the untold stories about the Troubles was that in the Fifties and early Sixties BBC Northern Ireland was very much a Protestant enclave. There were virtually no Catholics working for BBC Northern Ireland in that period. For BBC current affairs teams from London who went to cover Northern Ireland at the start of the troubles this was a major problem. All that has now changed, with the last two heads of the BBC in Northern Ireland being Catholics, but some in the Protestant leadership have never forgiven the BBC for changing.
When I was DG I was regularly told by one Protestant politician that I had let the Papists take over the BBC.
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