Mess with the BBC and you might just find you've lost another chairman

Michael Grade has made a decent job of reforming the way the corporation is governed, says Will Wyatt. A Green Paper that undermines him is not what's wanted
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The BBC is bracing itself for the Green Paper on its future and the big question that it will surely raise - how the corporation should be governed. The Paper is a long time coming. No doubt the Government is tweaking and arm-twisting. And at the end of it all, will Michael Grade decide that there is no future for him as chairman of the board of governors?

The BBC is bracing itself for the Green Paper on its future and the big question that it will surely raise - how the corporation should be governed. The Paper is a long time coming. No doubt the Government is tweaking and arm-twisting. And at the end of it all, will Michael Grade decide that there is no future for him as chairman of the board of governors?

The current 10-year BBC charter runs out at the end of 2006. Last time round the business had been sorted by this stage in the cycle. A Green Paper in 1992 was followed in the middle of 1994 by a White Paper that outlined the settlement.

This time the Government is running things down to the wire. But then the BBC can hardly be anywhere near the top of the Government's "to do" list, there being few votes in either giving the BBC a kicking or being kind to it.

Another reason for waiting is that the broadcasting world is changing faster than ever. The prospect of digital-only television - by satellite, cable or over the air - is but a few years away. What is more, there is a hefty new player in Ofcom, which had to be set up and have its say.

In one way the delay has been helpful to the BBC: by all accounts the corporation's case for its future had made little progress under Greg Dyke before he departed just over a year ago. Last time the BBC made the running over the charter; this time it has been on the back foot, although responding increasingly well.

There remains the question of the board of governors, which over the years has looked an ever more Gothic institution, with too many well-meaning but limited members, some soft chairmanship, appointment by constituency, and regional "pork-barrelling". Matters were then compounded by the David Kelly affair.

Since Hutton, it has been open season on beating up the governors. But they have been capable of decisive action - after all, they have sacked two of the last four directors-general. And what's more when I was an executive our biggest gripe against the governors was not that they were soft but that they would not agree to us doing what we wanted. They were at least governing.

It's true that their dual role in defending the independence of the BBC and overseeing the activities of the corporation in the public interest has not always been clear. Yet for all their faults the governors have maintained the political independence of the corporation in a way that is unique in the world. The BBC's programmes and services have had dips and failures - that is the nature of creative enterprises - but their record over the years is second to none.

In his eight months as chairman, Michael Grade has set to work with speed and determination to reshape and reform things: holding the executive publicly to account, distancing the board physically (moving only last week into new premises), introducing the governors' own resources for research and advice, commissioning reviews of output quite independent of the executive. The review of coverage of European affairs was frank and critical.

Grade's position stands to be profoundly affected by the Green Paper, which follows on from Lord Burns's recent report on charter renewal. In offering a concise analysis of the problems of BBC governance, it recommended abolishing the governors and replacing them with a joint board of executives and non-execs.

In true Whitehall fashion, Burns also proposed a new quango, an "Ofbeeb", to be called the Public Service Broadcasting Commission (PSBC). This would have "oversight of programmes, services and other activities" and "retain the BBC's independent editorial responsibility". So much for the chairman of the BBC.

There are positives in this plan, but it feels like another layer of complexity in running the corporation. And there is a sinister twist. Burns proposes to the Secretary of State that this PSBC should also, if it so chooses, hold back some of the money raised by the licence fee and allocate it elsewhere. In other words, it would become the ultimate decider of what programmes are made where.

Be absolutely clear: whatever sum of money might be hived off to start with, it will not be one that will reduce over time. The skids would be under the BBC. The direct link between the licence-payer and the BBC has a clarity that concentrates the minds of those working in the corporation and allows the public to know who is doing well or badly by their money. It is an odd form of accountability reform that would wish to fudge this.

The idea is mischievous, careless or naive, for cutting the licence fee link between the BBC and the public is also a necessary first step to emasculating the corporation.

Will Tessa Jowell accept Burns's ideas? Her department is keen to emphasise that he was hired to shed light and identify the issues, "not to tell us what to do."

If she were to accept the PSBC, where would that leave Grade? Why appoint him as chairman with a reform agenda, offer three cheers for the way he is going about the job, and then abolish his role and all he is seeking to achieve when he has hardly got started?

Grade is a proud man with a high profile. It is hard to see him accept the humiliation meekly. To lose one BBC chairman can be seen as bad luck, to lose two in 15 months would look politically careless, or worse.

It is not impossible that the Green Paper will dodge or put off the decision by listing the main options for governance reform while Grade's changes take effect. But this would merely prolong the agony.

Elsewhere, the Green Paper will endorse the licence fee, with a review, probably after seven years. The "least bad" way of paying for the BBC has life in it for a while to come.

The ever more powerful independent production sector will probably not get a new and higher quota for their programmes.

In the Dyke era the independents felt with justification that they were disadvantaged in the face of BBC in-house production. It will now be made clear to the BBC that it must be seen to commission fairly from wherever the best proposals come. The threat of a higher than 25 per cent quota will be the sanction.

Will Wyatt was the BBC's chief executive broadcasting from 1996 to 1999, and is the author of 'The Fun Factory - A Life in the BBC' (Aurum)


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