Following Lord Patten’s sudden resignation as chair of the BBC Trust because of ill health, there are three decisions to make. The most important is whether the Trust should continue to exist in its present form.
Then comes the question of who should be the next senior figure (for my surprise choice, see below).
There is also the issue of timing. Major changes in the structure of the BBC can be made only when the Royal Charter comes up for renewal. The present Charter lasts until the end of 2017. And just to complicate matters further, the next general election is due to be held in a year’s time.
As to the sequence of events, all that has been announced so far is that the excellent Diane Coyle, currently a vice-chair of the Trust, will take over as acting chair until a successor is appointed. The Government could be tempted to ask Ms. Coyle to continue in an acting capacity until after the election.
That would be a mistake. General elections are testing times for broadcasters. The duty to be impartial lies heavily upon them. Stopwatches are employed to measure how much coverage each political party receives. But whether the division is fair is always controversial and likely to be more so than ever with Ukip a major contender. In these circumstances, it is hard to see that an acting chair would carry sufficient authority. So a new chair must be appointed straight away.
The impossible nature of the Trust is that it is required to be both cheerleader for the BBC and its regulator. Thus is his farewell statement, Lord Patten stated that the BBC “is a huge national asset which is part of the everyday fabric of our lives… it is a precious and wonderful thing, a hugely positive influence which benefits greatly from the creativity and dedication of its staff… most important of all, the British public enormously value the strength of its output, its independence and the contribution it makes every day to the quality of our lives.”
Yet during Lord Patten’s time, the Trust subjected this same precious and wonderful thing to a series of public rebukes. Lord Patten, for instance, criticised the broadcaster’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames in 2012, saying it “wasn’t the BBC’s finest hour”. Lord Patten also had a public disagreement with the former director general, Mark Thompson, during the uproar over £25 million payments made by the BBC to 150 departing executives. The Trust claimed the BBC management had not properly informed it about settlements which were described by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, as “on another planet”.
The problem of combining cheerleader and regulator was recognised at the time of the renewal of the Charter in 2007. A committee was set up to advise the Labour government on what should be done. It recommended the creation of a new regulator, to be called the Public Service Broadcasting Commission, and a proper corporate board for the BBC itself, with an independent chairman sitting above the director-general. The proposal was not accepted.
Since then we have seen the difficulties in which the BBC Trust has found itself. And the travails of the Co-op Group give vivid testimony of the problems that can be created by a faulty governance structure.
I largely agree with the proposal that was rejected in 2007 except that I would pass the entire regulatory task to Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries. There would thus be a single BBC board. It would comprise a non-executive chair and perhaps five non-executive directors, three of whom would represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Two executives, the Director-General and the Director of News and Current Affairs, would join them.
Who then should be the next chair? He or she would head up the Trust until the sort of unitary board described above replaced it and, if satisfactory, would continue in post. My candidate is Jeremy Paxman. He has worked for the BBC since 1972. He is a broadcaster. He is also a commanding figure and he would directly relate to ordinary members of the public. They would see him as somebody who is completely straight. None of the other people whose names have been put forward would have the same resonance.
Last month, Mr. Paxman said in an interview that the Corporation was ‘smug’ and that “There’s a pile of stuff on the BBC I can’t stand”. That is a very good starting place.
HOW TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY
It is not only Poems that make grown men cry, to quote the title of a new anthology by Anthony and Ben Holden, but novels, too.
My eyes pricked with tears several times as I read Kamila Shamsie’s new work, A God in Every Stone. It is set in England, Belgium and India in the years 1914 to 1930. Among other things it describes the experience of Indian troops sent to Ypres, the battlefield where some of the fiercest fighting of the entire First World War occurred, and then what happened in April 1930 during the first major confrontation between British troops and non-violent demonstrators in Peshawar.
In the novel, a young English archaeologist, Viv Spencer, goes to Peshawar to help excavate a Buddhist site. There she meets Qayyum Gul, who had been at Ypres. Viv, thinking that she is speaking reassuringly to Qayyum, comments that “the old military men who had served in India insisted the loyalty of the Indian troops was beyond question”.
“‘Beyond question?’ It wasn’t a phrase Qayyum knew. The loyalty of Indian troops was somewhere beyond, all the way across the field without cover and up the slope where German gunmen waited.”
Then, a little later, immediately after British troops had fired on demonstrators in Peshawar, Qayyum is attempting to return to the centre of the city. An English army officer shouts:
“‘Stop. Stop right there.’
Strange, how a command delivered in an English accent still made him want to salute: ‘Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul, 40th Pathans. Sir.’
‘On leave are you?’
‘Discharged due to injuries sustained in battle, sir.’
‘Vipers, sir. Ypres.’
Of all the words known to the English, only Somme had greater power. Not King, not Country, not Christ could stand against Ypres. Even so, he didn’t expect the Englishman to step forward and hold out his hand.
‘My father died there. Royal Fusiliers.’”
Cue: tears in the eyes.