Ian Burrell: The arrogance of Lord Patten is damaging the BBC's reputation
Media Studies: There's a danger that the chairman thinks the BBC is out of the woods. That would be a mistaken view
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Monday 24 December 2012
Lord Patten sprinkles his discourse with the kind of erudite observations and witty bon mots that would make him a listenable presenter on Radio 4, should he be thinking of employment beyond his current role as chairman of the BBC Trust.
But he is also prone to an eye-widening arrogance that is damaging the organisation he is there to protect. Far from providing reassurance that the BBC is addressing its current crisis with the seriousness and urgency it surely merits, the avuncular peer somehow creates the impression that he thinks it's all been a bit of a fuss about nothing.
So we have him wafting away the "shabby" Public Accounts Committee, no less, for a critical report into what the parliamentary spending watchdog described as "cavalier" spending by Lord Patten's Trust on the severance packages of BBC executives, including departing Director General George Entwistle, who was paid £450,000. The Trust chairman observed that talking down the PAC was "a bit like swearing in church" but rubbished its findings anyway.
Lord Patten's appointment in March 2011 received a mixed reaction. To some, the former Conservative Party chairman was a government place man, there to keep the supposedly liberal BBC News division in its place. To others, there was merit in choosing a political heavyweight whose Tory credentials might help to counter the BBC's critics in the right-wing press. With no love for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp – which had pulped his HarperCollins memoir – Patten would not back down to the BBC's biggest media rival.
In the event, he has acted more as a cheerleader for the BBC executive than as a stick-wielding governor behaving in the organisation's best interests. When the Jimmy Savile scandal broke he was still basking in the reflected glory of the BBC's Olympics coverage and appeared to regard the accusations of a cover up as mischief-making by media rivals.
Patten has told Nick Pollard's review of the BBC's mishandling of its own Savile investigation that he was being given "too little information" from the BBC executive and was informed "mostly from reading the newspapers".
His public appearances in those early stages didn't suggest he was presiding over what Pollard called "one of the worst management crises in the BBC's history". Greg Dyke, the last DG to lose his job in such a meltdown, was astonished by the lack of support given to Entwistle. "When I was first in the role [BBC chairman, Sir] Christopher Bland gave me help and advice. He was dead right. In Entwistle's case that should have been [Lord] Patten," Dyke told the London Evening Standard two months ago. "No one doubts Entwistle was Patten's choice for the job, so where has Patten been?"
According to Tory MP Rob Wilson, Lord Patten's "extremely defensive, dismissive and at times abrupt" manner has been "unhelpful to the BBC executive management" and encouraged press aggression. "I think there's a danger that the chairman of the BBC Trust thinks that it's all over, job done, and the BBC is out of the woods. I think that would be a mistaken view," Wilson told me last week after the publication of the Pollard review.
Greg Dyke says the "difference between Christopher Bland and Chris Patten is that Bland is a street fighter". The former Governor of Hong Kong might not be a bruiser but he's adept at parrying the attacks of opponents and making occasional use of his rapier. His truculent performance on Today contrasted with that of his protege Entwistle who seemed paralysed by fear and later fell on his own sword.
John Humphrys, who interviewed them both, sounded unimpressed with Patten's talents for self-preservation. "You failed personally," he reminded him. "[Entwistle] was your man and you chose the wrong one." Patten blocked that thrust by stating that the ill-fated DG had been the unanimous selection of his Trust colleagues.
In all interviews, the Trust chairman is at pains to stress the BBC's continued talent for programme-making and its public reputation. "I don't think [trust] has nose-dived so much as some of our critics suggest," he assured Radio 4. The words sound complacent.
It is part of the BBC Trust chairman's job to support morale but the organisation's journalists know the story is not "all over" and remain determined to cover it. Jeremy Paxman, in questioning acting DG Tim Davie on Newsnight, wondered whether any BBC executives had been punished over the Savile fiasco.
Newsnight editor Peter Rippon and his deputy Liz Gibbons are being found new posts, as is Radio 5 Live controller Adrian van Klaveren, who oversaw the disastrous Newsnight film on child abuse in North Wales. Stephen Mitchell, the BBC's deputy head of news, is retiring a little earlier than planned. Helen Boaden, director of news, returns to her role (despite describing Rippon's flawed BBC website account of the Savile investigation with a text saying "Excellent blog. You are a terrific writer x").
What of Patten's job? Humphrys asked him if he had "reflected on your own position" but the peer said he was keen to work with the incoming DG Tony Hall.
Radio 5 Live's Nicky Campbell would have liked to have asked the same question but could only express frustration after the chairman turned his nose up at the opportunity. "Lord Patten 'too busy' to go on the network that has just lost its controller," he tweeted.
Culture Secretary pushed out of press reform talks
It appears the Culture Secretary Maria Miller is being muscled out of the Government's press reform negotiations by Oliver Letwin, the Policy Minister.
This is worrying not just because one Tory dinosaur meanly described Ms Miller to The Observer as "a dull, over-promoted housewife" but also because she has practical experience of working in the media and Letwin doesn't. Miller spent 10 years at the Grey advertising agency and a time at the PR firm Rowland Company.
But newspapers are not her strong point and – until the recent Daily Telegraph probe into her expenses claims – she has avoided press interviews. Perhaps she felt burned by a PR Week story in 2000 which revealed that, as a Rowland Company director, she posed as a "member of the public" in a Tory broadcast: "Tony Blair is all mouth and no delivery".
Some thought that title implied that Miller – a Tory member since 18 – was supposed to be a disgruntled Labour voter. No, she said. "An old friend asked if I would appear and I agreed. There was no rehearsal and no script. I just spoke to the camera about what matters to real people."
Off PM's Christmas card list
The still little-known investigative site Exaro enjoyed a notable success this month when its reporter David Hencke was named "Political Journalist of the Year" at the British Journalism Awards.
Hencke was honoured for his revelations that large numbers of senior civil servants were avoiding tax by working "off payroll" and using personal service companies. Among those exposed was Ed Lester, chief executive of the Student Loans Company.
But Exaro's anticipated moment in the spotlight did not materialise as the rest of the press chose to ignore Hencke and celebrate their own award winners.
The slight was greatly compounded last week when the new Political Journalist of the Year was left off the guest list for Downing Street's Christmas drinks party for lobby journalists, despite texting David Cameron's head of communications, Craig Oliver, to ask if he could come. Hencke, a card-carrying member of the lobby and a former award-winning reporter on 'The Guardian', is the former chairman and a committee member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
Surely it's nothing personal? "Perhaps I'm so insignificant I've fallen off the end of the Downing Street email list," says Hencke.
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