It is not the Government that now represents the chief threat to the BBC. Ministers can't necessarily be trusted to produce the right candidate for chairman. But in the end one can probably rely on them not to choose a provocatively pro-government figure. Blair wants a tamed BBC, not a partisan one.
Nor does the danger come from within, although Mark Byford, the acting Director General, and Lord Ryder, acting chairman, seem to be doing their best to give the Government the quietist corporation it desires. But they're not doing it without a fight from inside. If nothing else, the Hutton report has aroused a sympathy vote for the BBC and a determination not to see it driven to the margins of reporting.
The real problem of the BBC is the continuation of the Board of Governors. It's the wrong structure for an institution of this importance, and it's got the wrong people on it. If you think that's harsh, just look at their record.
They grossly misjudged the threat during the Campbell assault last year. They completely mishandled the resignation of their chairman, Gavyn Davies, and then the chief executive, Greg Dyke, after the Hutton report. And now we're supposed to look to them to manage the desperate twin problems of picking a successor to Dyke and negotiating a renewal of the Royal Charter. If they have coped so badly during the crisis so far, what on earth makes one believe that they will cope under the continuing pressure of the coming months?
This is not to denigrate them as individuals, nor to blame them wholly for the dire straits in which the BBC now finds itself. The truth is that Gavyn Davies led them badly, first by his rush to judgement in defending so wholeheartedly the Gilligan broadcast and then by tendering his resignation on the day of Hutton and before the governors met the following day. It was done no doubt for the noblest of reasons, but it left the board rudderless at its most crucial point.
Nonetheless, when the board did meet, it was a day later, against a quite different background than the panic with which it first greeted Hutton. The newspapers, and public opinion had swung dramatically to the view that Hutton had been too one-sided. The governors were in a position to stand firm and insist that they gave a measured response to Hutton in due course. Instead they went all over the place, dithered over the future of Greg Dyke, accepted his offer of resignation in the worst possible way, angering him, upsetting the BBC staff and making the Corporation look like a frightened minor-league football club incapable of getting a grip of the situation.
Looking at the list of governors, it's not hard to see why. The 11 appointees are no doubt good and stalwart members of society. But they have been picked not for their understanding of the business or their ability to act in a crisis, but as representatives of various interests. The acting chairman is there because he was proposed by the Tories as a reward for a long and discreet service as a Chief Whip. Dame Pauline Neville Jones is the Foreign Office candidate, as a consolation prize for not getting one of the top jobs in the FO.
There are three governors representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a token arts person in Deborah Bull, an economist, a law lecturer and a figure from the world of charities. Only one of them (the economist Baroness Hogg) has any real experience of journalism and none have any close knowledge of the world of mass media - the payment for sports rights, the scheduling of entertainment or the development of reality shows - in which the BBC operates.
It is a very English way of doing things. A number of museums are so structured (and the trustees of the British Museum managed their hour of trial, over the use of the wrong stone in the Great Court, just as badly). But the BBC isn't a museum. It stands right at the centre of English life, and the whole political-media-communications nexus.
The problem is that this incomparable institution is headed by an acting chief executive who seems to lack the confidence of his staff and an acting chairman who appears to believe that it should retreat to where it was in the Fifties, before commercial television, digital channels and the realities of modern journalism. For the best of reasons, the Government's desire to produce by committee a new chairman above reproach is all too likely to produce a candidate acceptable to all and beneficial to none - in other words, the very worst person for the job.
The best thing for the Corporation now would be to hold off on that process and to concentrate instead on the immediate task. Given a bit of courage, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, could appoint a figure of stature as pro-tem chairman. He or she could in turn rescind Greg Dyke's departure and re-appoint him (or someone else from the elder ranks of the industry) under a short-term contract of a year or two, giving the Corporation the chance to restore its morale and put in a proper submission for the Charter Renewal discussion. In the meantime, the Government could look again at the whole structure of governors and prepare with care to select a new board and chairman free of pressure.
It's a long shot, to be sure. But it's one that any politician who cares for the Corporation's future should take up. And it would work.Reuse content