Steve Richards: What's needed at the BBC is the rigour of the John Birt era

Fortunately, the current chairman, Chris Patten, recognises the BBC's flaws while being a supporter

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The Independent Online

The recent furore over the BBC's coverage of the Jubilee coincides with the search for a new Director-General. The coincidence is fortunate for the BBC and the licence payer. In many ways a force for good, the institution is in need of fresh leadership and, arguably, for leadership of any kind at all.

If the attack of misjudged populism was a one-off, it could be easily dismissed. But it is part of a pattern, and symptomatic of an inverse snobbery that has infected parts of the BBC since the departure of John Birt as Director-General. Occasionally, I bump into political addicts still recovering from being greeted by Jeremy Vine dressed up as a cowboy on an election programme several years ago. At the last general election, the closest and most dramatic for decades, one of the Beeb's early pundits was Bruce Forsyth speaking on a boat. BBC's Question Time, occasionally brilliant and genuine political theatre, tries too hard to please with overcrowded panels that include footballers, rock stars or comedians and chunks given over to an audience, a near meaningless vox pop, unavoidably contrived as it is rightly selected with a need for balance in mind.

I make the point as someone who idolises Bruce Forsyth. I still occasionally watch old episodes of The Generation Game to learn about comic timing. He is not quite so sharp on Strictly Come Dancing, but can still work an audience like few others. He is a comic genius. But his political views are of no great interest and will not draw viewers towards politics if they see him on a boat on election night. Match of the Day would not put Ed Balls next to Alan Hansen for a season, although, when I come to think of it, that might be quite an inspired move. But Hansen could easily appear in some parts of the Beeb's political coverage, and probably has done so.

The aftermath of the Jubilee brouhaha also followed a familiar pattern. At first, the BBC seemed incapable of putting up anyone to defend the coverage. On the Today programme, a former Radio 4 Controller, Mark Damazer, came to the rescue, but none of its many senior managers was available. One candidate for the DG's job, George Entwistle, received flak for going on holiday instead of trying to defend the coverage. I have some sympathy for Entwistle. I am sure he left without feeling any direct responsibility. Quite probably he had none, being so far up the hierarchy that he was not involved in much detail at all.

Those who followed the long trail of complacent managerial emails published during the Hutton Inquiry after the Iraq war will recognise the persistent problem. So many senior managers are theoretically responsible that few, if any, are directly responsible and accountable. No political party could get away with not fielding anyone during a media storm, and would be attacked by the BBC for its failure to do so.

Fortunately, the current Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, recognises the flaws of the BBC as well as being a robust supporter, a good combination. Patten remains one of the more interesting figures in British politics, with a laidback charm, and almost by chance at the centre of stirring, and sometimes historic, events. He was in charge of the poll tax in the late 1980s and tried to persuade Mrs Thatcher that the policy was doomed. He told me at the time with a doleful, but mischievous, expression: "I take the nightmarish forecasts for the level of poll tax bills to Margaret Hilda. She shakes her head and says she doesn't believe me." Had she believed him, she might have kept her job a lot longer.

Next, Patten was made chairman of the Conservative Party and played a pivotal role in John Major's victory in 1992, an achievement still underestimated, not least in parts of the Conservative Party. Then he became the last Governor of Hong Kong. This is quite a sequence.

Now he turns to the BBC. His main concerns are the correct ones – the level of executive remuneration, the related issue of the number of managers, and a tendency for a small, but significant, part of the output to lapse into unconvincing populism. These concerns are also expressed to him by senior figures from all political parties and from within the Beeb. When the BBC still published an in-house newspaper, Patten would circle the posts advertised that he regarded as non-jobs. There were many circles. Privately, he was telling senior managers long before the Jubilee about his worries in relation to populism. Those close to him say he is also aware that, so far, managerial cuts have been achieved largely by "tricks and mirrors".

Nonetheless, he remains a devotee of the BBC, a Conservative unfazed by comically unjustified attacks from Conservative newspapers about bias. John Birt was never a popular DG internally, but the BBC could do with some Birtist rigour and sense of distinctive mission. I suspect Patten agrees. One of his last tasks in an extraordinary career is to ensure the next DG agrees, too.

s.richards@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/steverichards14

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