Some time last week, I think it was around Tuesday or Wednesday, I began to feel sorry for Tessa Jowell. I have no particular reason to support the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; she certainly didn't do me any favours during the Kelly/Hutton affair when she was only too willing to do Alastair Campbell's bidding, and to attack me and the BBC to anyone who would listen.
She's also been too much of a sycophantic Blairite for my taste, too often acting uncritically as her master's voice - although she's not the only cabinet minister guilty of that.
To be fair, she's not been a bad Culture Secretary, and her performance has improved enormously during her time in charge of the department. On the big issues in broadcasting, such as the creation of Ofcom, she's largely been proved right, and she clearly deserves real credit for her role in winning the Olympics for London in 2012.
But none of that is why I began to feel sorry for her. No, what worried me as the media pack sensed blood and moved in for another ministerial kill was that she seemed to be getting an awful lot of flak simply because she was married to David Mills. She was in danger of being found guilty by association with her husband.
As everyone now knows, Mills is a lawyer and tax specialist who has worked for, and is close to, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. That in itself is arguably a misjudgement given Berlusconi's reputation, and Mills may or may not have done things he should not have; only time, and possibly the courts, will establish that. But on the basis of the evidence so far available little of this has anything to do with Ms Jowell. Finding someone guilty of an offence of being married to someone who might be up to no good strikes me as unfair, even when that person is a politician. And some of the allegations made against Ms Jowell in the past week were simply wrong.
I saw one story on BBC News which suggested that, because she was married to Mr Mills, Ms Jowell should have declared a conflict of interest when the Government decided to allow ITV to be bought by foreign media groups, with the obvious suggestion that Ms Jowell, as Secretary of State, pushed this legislation through because somehow the decision might advantage Berlusconi. There are three obvious flaws in this argument.
First, the decision to change the rules on the foreign ownership of ITV was an initiative from No.10, not the Culture Department. Second, Berlusconi has never shown the slightest interest in buying ITV. Third, and by far the most powerful argument, the change in the foreign ownership rules made not the slightest difference to whether or not Berlusconi's company could own ITV. As a European company it was already allowed to own ITV if it wanted to; the point of the change in the rules was that it made it possible for non-European companies to own Britain's No. 1 commercial broadcaster for the first time.
Looking at the case against Ms Jowell, it seems to me that the only serious allegation against her is that she signed a form to re-mortgage her house when her husband presented her with the papers. Is that sufficient evidence to end her ministerial career? The Cabinet Secretary decided it wasn't.
Of course, if it now turns out that she tried to influence the Home Office in how it dealt with requests for information from Italian prosecutors in their case against Mr Mills, it's another matter. But so far there's no evidence to support that and it seems to me that the media's demand for blood needs to be resisted unless the evidence is watertight. It is worth remembering that Peter Mandelson was driven from office by a media campaign over the Hinduja affair, only for it later to emerge that he wasn't actually guilty of what he had been charged with. In that case Alastair Campbell has a lot to answer for.
But Ms Jowell had better watch out: she has a lot of enemies around. Last week I was at an event in the House of Commons where I bumped into two former ministers, one Labour and one Tory. We got on to discussing the Jowell affair and I told them I was planning to write a sympathetic column about the issue. Both tried to warn me off, saying that they thought David Mills had sailed very close to the wind.
As far I was concerned this only made my point. I am not interested in whether David Mills is guilty or not guilty. I'm only interested in whether Tessa Jowell has done anything wrong. Once we start judging people, and particularly politicians, by the actions of their spouses rather than themselves, we are on a slippery slope. We are demanding too great a level of accountability. Why stop at the actions of a spouse? What about the parents or children of politicians? Should we have judged Margaret Thatcher by what her son Mark was up to?
New boss, old problems
The news that the staff at the BBC are deeply unhappy with the corporation's current leadership, and that only 13 per cent of them believe that senior management listen to their views (compared with 54 per cent three years ago) must be a real problem for BBC chairman Michael Grade.
The last time these sort of BBC approval figures were as low was in John Birt's time, and one of the outsiders then leading the attack against Birt's style of management was none other than Michael Grade. In his 1992 MacTaggart lecture, the then chief executive of Channel 4 described Birt's BBC as "pseudo Leninist", saying: "There comes a point where iron discipline is virtually indistinguishable from brain death, and the worst consequence of all this is on the morale of the staff who speak disparagingly of their managers - behind their backs."
When I was appointed director general in 1999, at the end of the Birt era, the BBC governors made it very clear to me that one of my major tasks was to improve morale among the staff at the BBC. I am not sure they had been influenced by or even read Grade's lecture; they were simply fed up with BBC staff moaning about the management and believed that the relationship between the two was damaging the performance of the organisation.
Given what Grade said back in 1992, isn't it now time for him to do something about BBC morale? Or was that then and this is now, and that was Birt and this is Grade?Reuse content