'Welcome back. But don't let your mind wander again'

In an open letter to the new chairman of the BBC, Will Wyatt greets his former rival as a sound appointment - given the right director general
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The Independent Online

Dear Michael,

Congratulations. From the names in the press you looked to be the one, and I could imagine your smile when you saw that George Russell was to be on the selection panel, he who was on the panel that appointed you to Channel 4 and whom you followed as chairman of Camelot. Not that you needed much help. From all accounts it was a shoo-in.

This is yet further testimony to the powerhouse that was London Weekend Television, which has now spawned two directors general of the BBC, John Birt and Greg Dyke, and two chairmen, Christopher Bland and you.

You were good for the BBC when you were there before, in the 1980s, inculcating a positive can-do attitude and spreading a cheery self-confidence. We all benefited and learnt from that.

It is a threatening time for the BBC. It will need self-confidence as it approaches a review of its charter in a fast-changing broadcasting world, and with commercial rivals more seriously aggressive towards the corporation than I can remember. You bring an understanding of the business that will help navigate a route through the digital junctions that lie ahead.

Above all, you will be fiercely protective of the BBC's independence. You have spoken up for it in the past, championed public service broadcasting, and ushered some difficult programmes on the air. What is more, you are capable of a gracious apology when one is due.

Remember, too, as recent history demonstrates, that the best protection for the BBC is not to roll up the sleeves and offer to fight all-comers, but to maintain high standards, especially in its journalism. Eternal vigilance is necessary.

The very fact of your appointment bodes well for the charter process. If the government harbours any agenda to hack away at the BBC or visit any revenge upon it, they have made a barmy choice.

Now, it will be hard work. I do not suggest you shirk from that, but while you did a great job for the first part of your time at Channel 4, achieving a strong settlement and increasing the audience, towards the end of your reign your mind appeared to wander. As your competitors at the time, I and colleagues at the BBC felt that the team under you was allowed to fall asleep. So, watch out for that if there is a second term.

The BBC will have now have showbusiness skills at the top. You like a headline or a publicity coup and know how to get them. That is fine when the publicity coup is for the right decision. But beware the temptation to make the decision because it will generate the headline.

You will have no truck, I know, with the daft idea of splitting the director general's job, as if you could have someone responsible for what goes out on the air and someone for the rest. There is no "the rest". Everything in the BBC must be directed towards broadcasting. The director general's job is to appoint the right people, lead them effectively, and put in the systems which enable full responsibility at the top.

It is extraordinary how newspaper speculation about appointing the next director general is couched almost entirely in terms of who the staff would like. For "staff" read "journalists". So much of the copy generated is the result of journalists BBC unloading their views, guesses and paranoia on to colleagues in the written press. Many of the BBC's journalists appear to have embraced the victim culture of our day, wailing that the Hutton Report was "so unfair" and resenting the BBC's apology - as if the apology was a sign of weakness rather than indication of a major cock-up. I am reminded of the dictum of a previous BBC governor, Sir Richard Eyre: "The theatre is as nothing to journalists in self-regard and vanity."

Imagine debating the candidates for chief executive of BT, or the Strategic Rail Authority, or the NHS in terms of who would be popular with the staff.

You need someone who understands the purposes of the BBC in the 21st century, can articulate that as a vision for staff and public alike, has the capacity to translate it into a strategy for action, and can lead the organisation in delivering it.

The right person will be thinking five years ahead as well as of tomorrow, will be more concerned with shaping the BBC's educational strategy than with this morning's ratings, will no more forget to cover the arts properly than to develop new comedies, will review every aspect of the BBC with rigour, and address any failure swiftly. You need someone in whom the governors have confidence and with whom they get on, and who complements you, in skills, background and character.

You and other governors must encourage, support and make tough demands of this person, as he or she must of the staff. You know how important it is for the BBC to succeed with its popular programmes; you have seen in recent times how dangerous it is when it looks as though that is all it worries about.

Good luck in your choosing. Do not even think to consider any candidate's politics. If they are known, they should not be candidates. We have been down that road once before.

All the best, Will

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', published by Aurum

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