Sarah Sands: Lofty Lord Patten at the BBC is a Reithian dream

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As this newspaper testifies in its founding principles, independence is an excellent thing. But it can drive everybody else mad. Chris Patten, a safe bet as the new chairman of the BBC Trust, has the de haut en bas manner which comes with being above the political fray. Appearing before the Commons select committee, Lord Patten pitched for the job in the manner of Cordelia before King Lear. He could not heave his heart into his mouth.

Indeed, he so fastidiously avoided sucking up that he managed to insult everyone. The BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, must have been hopeful about the arrival of a fellow Catholic intellectual, and surprised when Lord Patten announced that the DG was overpaid.

He also made an ironic allusion to the complaint by the former DG Greg Dyke that the BBC was "hideously white". "I'm 66, I'm white and I'm reasonably well educated." Don't you love the "reasonably", coming from the Chancellor of Oxford, and graduate of Balliol? Loftiest of all, was his observation that he "hardly watched television".

If you were a new graduate applying for a job with your skills, dedication, and willingness to do anything to get on, you might look at his interview technique in wonder. Since when was a detachment bordering on disdain encouraged by career advisers? Yet everything Lord Patten of Barnes said was calculatingly brilliant. It was a barrister's trick of confounding the prosecution.

The criticism from the left is that he is a Tory placeman. Have they any idea how how the Tory right loath him? If you combined Ken Clarke and John Bercow, you would still not be close. Yet if the noble lord had appeared politically savvy or on message, the left would have been suspicious. So the former Conservative party chairman chose a high table distance from the modern world.

This had the added advantage of being authentic. One of the distressing and weird character flaws of Gordon Brown was his excitement about light entertainment. How could such a Reithian character have hitched himself to Piers Morgan? Chris Patten's definition of a celebrity as someone he has never heard of, is, by contrast, thrilling.

The paradox of the BBC is that it must understand the new while remaining true to itself. As Lord Patten put it, gracefully, the BBC should be an ethic not a brand. Why is it that the most popular BBC executive in recent years was the celestial minded Mark Damazer, who resigned from Radio 4 for the sake of academe?

Mark Thompson is adamant that the BBC must represent all tax payers, Glaswegians and Londoners alike. Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC 1, calls for more working-class programmes, with a Lady Chatterley-like longing. Yet the self-flagellating of the highly educated has no resonance among the rest of the population.

Lord Patten arrives at the BBC like a C S Lewis allegory. His weary, careless answers may just be a conservation of energy. For those who see the BBC as an ethic, the enemy is not stuffiness but Rupert Murdoch. I recently asked the director-general how the battle between good and evil was going, and he said hastily: "Your words, not mine."

Cometh the time, cometh Fat Pang. He is not just a chairman; he stands for the forces of civilisation. He answers not to the select committee, but to the ghost of Lord Reith.



Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard.

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