When the BBC Director-General, George Entwistle, called a news conference to present a belated response to the Jimmy Savile affair, the new face of British public broadcasting looked in dire need of media training. He did not know where to look; he assumed some strange expressions; he snapped at his own Corporation’s reporter; his glasses were odd. Referring to his time as head of “Vision” – which, as he deigned to translate, meant overall responsibility for television – he seemed to suggest he would have breached his remit if he had been too curious about Newsnight’s forward planning.
My reaction was unfair. In the job barely a month, Entwistle was caught in one of the biggest firestorms to hit the Corporation in recent years. But his seemingly hesitant response, of which this news conference was just a part, poses a much broader question. Would anyone else have done a better job? And if, for instance, that person had been appointed Director-General in the expectation they would perform brilliantly on television, would they also be capable of running the labyrinthine BBC?
The very top jobs these days require a combination of abilities, of which only one is professional expertise. Some are managerial, others presentational, yet others political. Candidates also need a clean bill of health – Mike O’Neill, the “best chief executive Barclays Bank never had”, was ruled out in 1999 when he failed his medical. They must also be reasonably blameless, or at least discreet, in their private life. The “bonking” Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Rupert Pennant-Rea, had to resign, and that was in 1995.
This year’s shortlist for BBC Director-General contained just three names, of whom two were insiders. Entwistle won, it is said, because he came across as the most “outside” insider – he understood the Corporation, but also what was wrong with it, and had ideas about what should be done. A complete outsider might have been preferable, in terms of giving the BBC the shake-up that is overdue. But how long would it take a new person to discover how things really worked? Would they be able to “take the staff with them”, and how might the politicians and licence-payers react to iconoclasm?
It might be that someone with more natural authority in public than Entwistle – as opposed to the committees and editing he doubtless excels at – might have offered an earlier and more convincing public response to the Savile problem. It might also be that his political antennae were too blunt. A claim to be apolitical is almost an article of faith for executives at the BBC. But you do not have to be “political” to possess political acumen. It was telling that one of the first BBC people to emit serious warning signals about the Savile affair was that old political warhorse Chris Patten, who now chairs the BBC Trust, at the same time as being Chancellor of Oxford University.
In the UK, there is just a small clutch of jobs of the order of BBC Director-General, but they all enjoy – or threaten – a high public profile and prompt instant judgements about competence on the part of people mostly unqualified to make them. One such post would be Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a job of which Bernard Hogan-Howe seems so far to be making a better fist than his two predecessors did. Another, particularly sensitive, example is Archbishop of Canterbury. A decision on who should succeed Rowan Williams has been delayed, apparently because of disagreement among the 16 members of the Crown Nominations Commission.
Also at the shortlist stage, and supposedly suffering a dearth of suitable candidates, is the contest to be the next Governor of the Bank of England. Of all the names mooted at the outset, only four, it appears, have survived or left their hats in the ring, and of these only two – Lord Turner, currently chairman of the Financial Services Authority, and the present deputy, Paul Tucker – seem to be in with a chance. Tucker has all the advantages and disadvantages of his association with the old regime. Turner – rightly or wrongly – is seen as the “outsider”.
For my part, I sigh a little at the thought of Turner adding to his string of top jobs, as I did when Lord Patten was appointed to the BBC Trust. Are there really so few individuals of the right calibre that these luminaries are called upon to occupy more than one? Or could it be that selectors are too demanding, just because the likes of Patten and Turner are there? Or that shortlists reflect the profile of the selectors and the perceived shortcomings of the previous incumbent, rather than what is actually required for the job? Is it not possible to divide what is essential from what can be learnt?
One solution to the top job conundrum was found when Sir Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell retired last year as head of the Civil Service. His job was split, with the post of Cabinet Secretary hived off. And you could argue that the election of a Coalition government has divided the responsibilities of Prime Minister. But there is room for other answers. How about a recognition that some organisations, and not just certain banks, have grown too big and too complex to be managed successfully? Or a greater public acceptance of a few rough presentational edges, so long as the substance is sound? I would bet that next time George Entwistle presents his case, he will look and sound every bit the BBC Director-General.