Formidable Margaret Hodge, the nation’s favourite dominatrix who humbles big time tax avoiders, is now turning to the BBC’s top brass and overseers. The chair of the Public Accounts Committee has ordered erstwhile DG Mark Thompson and five others to appear before her this autumn. They must be quaking in their custom-made shoes. She kicks through obscurantist trickery and well-practised excuses. There will be little pleasure coming from this pain.
The head of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten looked as if he would turn into a puddle of melted marge when Hodge recently questioned him about the high severance payments of departing managers. Patten claimed to be an innocent bystander who knew nothing about what went on. Thompson has contradicted that claim. Patten, of course, backed George Entwistle, the DG paid off handsomely after the Savile crisis erupted. Don’t miss the showdown.
This outburst of honest answerability is welcome, if a little late. But financial profligacy is only one of the serious failures of the BBC. And it would be a huge mistake to fall back on the cosy assumption that all bad things happened then and that, under the new order, everything is shiny and pristine. It is not and it is not good for us as licence-payers to slip back into complacency and for the new leadership to expect no scrutiny or censure.
On Saturday, I cooked for and supped with a reader and his guests. He, a hospital doctor, had bid and won this auction item last Christmas. We talked about the NHS and its woes and then got on to the BBC and the way it was and still is run. Bosses and the BBC Trust make up rules, capriciously discard them, have no regard for integrity and fairness or real, as opposed to paper, accountability. This excoriation came from lifelong champions of the unrivalled broadcaster, not right-wingers filled with loathing for all tax-funded services. In Uganda, BBC radio was always on in our home, the voices as familiar and comforting to me as that of my mother. On migrating to Britain, that bond deepened and has survived many disappointments, and sometimes fury, caused by BBC programmes, insiders, policies, the culture and decisions. Those ties have been weakening and feel now like the reveries of a foolish old woman.
Usefully, the good doctor at the table surgically cut through the chimera and cant. Why, he asked, are no proper employment procedures followed as Tony Hall puts together his team? Individuals are appointed without any open competition for key roles. They are almost all men, white, of a certain class and educational background, who will have known Hall, I suspect, at some point. James Harding, an ex-editor of The Times, smart chap, just like James Purnell previously a Labour minister, are among the lucky ones to get that phone call, an invitation to take the lift up to the top floor.
Now, I am a real Hall groupie, and backed him when he was going for the DG post back when Greg Dyke got the job. He turned the Royal Opera House from a palace of the rich and pompous to a sparkling, welcoming space for all, showcasing old and new works without compromising standards. The Beeb needed him at its moment of crisis and I do understand why, at the time, they didn’t go through a long recruitment process. But that was not a licence to carry on with that patently unfair practice. The Nolan Principles established in 1994, institutionalised probity in politics and public life. No appointment was to be made without assessment by a panel which had to include an independent assessor; equal opportunities had to be seen to be delivered during the selection process; reasons for choices made had to be transparent. Those principles, taken seriously by most MPs, are simply sidestepped by the vainglorious BBC.
The problem is the culture. The BBC is a place of total, scary conformity and absolute power. How many whistleblowers have we ever heard or seen? Many commissioning editors behave like Roman emperors, accepting and rejecting ideas without reasonable explanations. Trust members, on the whole, don’t like to make trouble or rock the fine BBC ship. So Patten stubbornly stays put and they roll over. I have been asked twice by headhunters to apply to be on the Trust. Some trusted contacts inside the BBC told me not to bother. They want people who fit in, not dissidents.
Those who rise to the top have to be loyal club members too. The previous BBC boss Mark Damazer’s interview in this paper was a textbook example of that loyalty. Asked about the Savile scandal and crazy payouts he opined they were all “honourable people doing the right thing”. Hall is capping final compensation packages and says he is cutting down on the number of managers. Good. But he now has a faithful, handpicked gang around him, a cabal, and that, to me, means the same old group inwardness and self-preservation.
The BBC’s nepotism and protectionism are indefensible. The treasured, globally admired institution needs to change radically. Tony Hall is brilliant and up to that challenge – but only if he changes everything, including the way he himself operates.