After his acclaimed role in co-ordinating the 2012 Olympics, Lord Coe has emerged as a surprise candidate to be the next chairman of the BBC Trust.
The Conservative peer’s apparent interest in the role was revealed by the ITV News political editor Tom Bradby who claimed that Lord Coe’s appointment was “an obvious marriage” between the organiser of the London games and the organisation which successfully broadcast them.
“I have been told this lunchtime by a senior Government source that Sebastian Coe is now the clear frontrunner to be the next Chair of the BBC Trust,” said Bradby. “There are a few hurdles left to clear and obstacles that can be placed in his way, but I am told he is interested and that he enjoys the firm support of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Given that this is basically a Number Ten appointment, that should more or less settle it.”
But the suggestion that the former athlete had been anointed caused shock at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which is just beginning a lengthy appointment process to replace Lord Patten, who retired this month on health grounds. Advertisements for the prestigious role have yet to be published.
The Mayor of London Boris Johnson rushed forward to endorse the idea of his Tory colleague succeeding Lord Patten at the head of the BBC’s governing body. “I think it’s fantastic news for the BBC and British broadcasting. Seb Coe is a great leader,” he told ITV. “I’ve worked with him a lot over the last few years and I think he’ll demand very high standards of the BBC but I think he’ll be in exactly the right tradition of British broadcasting. It’s a first rate choice.”
But the Labour MP Jim Sheridan, who sits on the House of Commons select committee on Culture, Media and Sport, warned that the championing of Lord Coe could mean high quality candidates were “deterred from applying”. He said: “I would hope that this whole process would be open and transparent and free from any political bias.”
Bradby indicated that Downing Street wanted a political ally in charge of the Trust ahead of a General Election. “The Prime Minister and the Chancellor… remain suspicious of the BBC generally, both in terms of inherent bias and alleged profligacy. So this appointment was always going to be someone they wholeheartedly approved of, which basically means a politician from the Tory family. Given that, Sebastian Coe is a rather clever choice. The Olympics was an undeniable triumph and the BBC had a significant share in that. It is, you might say, an obvious marriage.”
Lord Coe’s spokesperson described the story as “speculation”.
Steven Barnett, professor in communications at the University of Westminster, said he was “very surprised” by Lord Coe being linked to the role. “The chairman of the BBC Trust is a regulatory job and I don’t see him as a natural regulator. He wouldn’t be running anything, he would be scrutinizing and I’m not sure it’s a role he’d be suited for or would even want.”
Sources at the BBC Trust predicted that “many hats will be thrown into the ring”. Other leading contenders for the job are believed to include Sir Howard Stringer, former head of the Sony Corporation, Marjorie Scardino, the former head of Pearson, and the economist Diane Coyle, who is the Trust’s acting head.
Lord Patten’s appointment was only confirmed after a six month process. After the deadline for applications has passed, a shortlist will be drawn up, with the Government’s preferred candidate scrutinised at a public session of the media select committee.
The whole process is being overseen by Culture Secretary Sajid Javid. A DCMS spokesperson said last night: “An announcement will be made in due course about the appointment process for a successor. The process will be open, transparent and conducted in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointment’s Code of Practice.”