Andreas Whittam Smith: The BBC chairman should not be a Labour supporter

'The chair of governors must be ready to defend journalists who may seem stubbornly intransigent'
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The Independent Online

Now that Sir Christopher Bland has gone to preside over the board of British Telecom, the Government is advertising for a new chair of the BBC. The Prime Minister's decision will say something about the style of the second term. For the temptation to make a political decision must be strong, and, in the shape of the recently appointed vice-chairman, Gavyn Davies, there is such a candidate.

Mr Davies will be familiar to readers because for a long time he wrote a weekly comment on economic affairs in the business pages. I turned to it eagerly. It combined rigorous argument, insight and a willingness to explore unorthodox ideas. Sarah Hogg, also a BBC governor, and equally well known to readers from her period as a distinguished editor of the same business pages, now writes in Mr Davies' slot.

Mr Davies is an influential supporter of New Labour. As a wealthy, London-based managing director and chief international economist of the American investment bank Goldman Sachs, this has been a pleasing combination. Once upon a time he would have been called a champagne socialist, like the late Harold Lever. That doesn't sound quite right any longer. But whatever you call them to-day, such people generally have the merit of being interesting and open minded.

I have read the advertisement to see whether it implies that political independence would be a necessary quality in the chair of the BBC governors. I'm afraid that it does not. It states that the governors are trustees for the public interest. But then so, constitutionally, is the Government itself. It requires a "proven ability to work constructively with a range of people and organisations in the public and private sectors". I half agree with this formulation.

It was a mistake by Sir Christopher Bland to have what I believe must have been a bad relationship with the Department of Culture. Both parties deny this. But Sir Christopher did once publicly state that the Secretary of State's opinion was worth no more than that of any single licence fee-payer. It was nonsense. It is obvious that individual MPs of any party and members of the government of the day are owed special respect by virtue of being the people's elected representatives. I was astonished that the outgoing chairman thought differently.

So yes, to build a constructive relationship with the government department responsible for broadcasting is a necessity. At the same time, though, the BBC is a news organisation, the country's biggest and most influential. News organisations as such cannot always work constructively with those whose activities they cover. Indeed it is in the public interest that they be bloody-minded from time to time. And the chair of the governors must be ready to defend behaviour by the BBC's journalists which may be seen as stubbornly intransigent.

As he comes to make this appointment, Tony Blair has two recent precedents to consider, the speakership of the House of Commons and the status of the Bank of England. In the former case, unfortunately, I would say, members of Parliament approved overwhelmingly, on a free vote, the election of a Speaker who belongs to the governing party, equipped as it is with a huge majority. As part of the Speaker's task is to defend the independence of Parliament against the power of the state, his appointment was straightforwardly undesirable.

The Bank of England example goes the other way. In a decision which still astounds because it broke with all precedent and denied all expectation, the Bank of England was given its independence in the first weeks of the last Parliament. The Chancellor of the Exchequer voluntarily relinquished control of a crucial instrument of economic policy, the setting of interest rates. And Gordon Brown shows no sign of regretting his decision. Indeed in his Mansion House speech last week, the Chancellor pointedly praised Sir Edward George's leadership of the Bank.

I don't want to make too much of the Bank of England example, because the issue of whether or not the central bank is the creature of the state does not affect our liberties so much. Gavyn Davies is such a talented chap that his name has often been suggested as the next governor. Personally I would have no objection to his appointment. He would do it very well.

But I think that in the cases of both the speakership of the House of Commons and the chairmanship of the BBC, the situation is different. To preserve freedom, or more precisely freedom of expression, the holders of these posts should, by instinct, training and record, be independent of the government of the day and should be seen to be so.

I am such a purist that I thought that Greg Dyke, the Director General of the BBC, should have been disqualified from consideration for the job because of the substantial contributions he made to Labour Party funds. Even more so do I think that the chair must be clear of all political entanglements.