Steve Richards: Who would want to be chairman of the BBC, when the position is nearly powerless?

Michael Grade was a leader in a job that does not require much leadership
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The Independent Online

Michael Grade's defection from the BBC to ITV has generated more raging myths in the space of a few days than those that arise when a politician changes sides or when Spurs' captain Sol Campbell moved to arch-rivals Arsenal.

The first common misperception is that the BBC is plunged into a leadership crisis. Sometimes the BBC reports minor tremors at Westminster as if they are volcanic eruptions. Now the corporation is the victim of the same overexcitement. How can there be a leadership crisis when the remit of BBC chairman gives the occupant no space to lead? Indeed, that is one of the reasons why Mr Grade is going. In his farewell e-mail to BBC staff, Mr Grade speaks of "an effort of will it has taken me" to avoid engaging in programming ideas. He was a leader in a job that does not require much leadership.

The role of chairman will become hazier still when the new Trust replaces the Board of Governors next year, with its uneasy mix of strategic and regulatory functions. There is no ideal candidate. David Dimbleby would be a superb leader of the BBC, with a lifelong commitment to public broadcasting and an insider's knowledge of the corporation's current failings.

But the chairman of the trust will not be a leader any more than Mr Grade was able to lead as chairman of the governors. Mr Dimblebly will have more fun and fulfilment presenting Question Time. Someone from the private sector might be able to knock the bizarre, multi-layered managerial structure into shape, but it is not clear that he or she would have the power to do so.

A big figure from politics might bring some much-needed awareness of political nuance to the top of the organisation, but it is not clear whether much use would be made of such insights.

The current government has been responsible for appointing two chairmen. In both cases, and for different reasons, it agonised over the appointment. The reasons for the agony are to do with the remit of the role and not the lack of possible candidates

capable of leading the BBC. Mr Grade's departure is therefore not in itself a crisis for the organisation but raises the wider question about whether internal regulation is possible any longer, partly on the grounds that it is impossible to attract suitable candidates. If they are any good, they will not hang around in the post for very long. If they are mediocre, they should not be playing such a role.

From what I can tell it is correct that the BBC was taken aback by Mr Grade's decision, but that was more because of the surprise than a fear that the corporation will immediately descend into more chaos. Understandably, there was the shock of a defection to a rival.

Spurs' fans have never forgiven Sol Campbell, even though their old hero now plays for the less threatening and unglamorous Portsmouth after his stint of betrayal at Arsenal. Less understandably, some in the BBC are always taken aback when someone leaves for more stimulating tasks. Most of them spend their working lives in the organisation, wary when outsiders move in and when insiders move out. None of this means the BBC becomes flakier, uniquely, because of Mr Grade's departure.

Nor will the move have any impact on the licence fee settlement, another myth that has surfaced in recent days. Mr Grade was a charismatic and forceful advocate, more so compared with some of his more publicly awkward colleagues that he leaves behind. But cabinet ministers meet charismatic and forceful advocates for various causes most hours of the day. Force of personality is not an issue.

Whatever the outcome, the BBC has already botched its bid for an above-inflation licence fee settlement. The departure of Mr Grade makes no difference. At the beginning of this particular journey, with Mr Grade still in place, the BBC was acting in the most benevolent climate possible.

As a perverse consequence of the Hutton report, the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, persuaded Tony Blair that there was no point in taking on the BBC again. She argued that while much of the media disapproves of the BBC, it disapproves of the Government even more. The Government could not win another fight. This meant that a BBC chairman and DG could have been stuffed pandas and they would still have got the charter renewed more or less as they sought. There was no political appetite for a battle.

The initial ministerial defensiveness highlights another myth, that the Government is so fearful of Rupert Murdoch it will be harsh on the BBC. The opposite is the case. Fearful of the might of the BBC and its inadvertent tendency to follow the political fashions in newspapers, it is possible that the BBC will get a slightly more generous settlement than Mr Blair and Mr Brown believes is appropriate.

If the BBC fails to get such a settlement it will only have itself to blame. The Brownite entourage began this journey by hailing the public ethos of the BBC, but I am told that the Treasury was unimpressed by the original BBC application for a licence-fee settlement above inflation.

There is also suspicion of the so-called efficiencies in the BBC. Across the political spectrum questions are being asked about whether the axe is falling in the right places, and whether it is being wielded as forcefully as is claimed. In particular, I am told that some in the Treasury worry about the number of generously rewarded, risk-free jobs at the top of a publicly funded organisation, epitomised by the complacent awards this summer of large bonuses.

In spite of the supposed mayhem, the BBC's output remains strong. No viewer or listener would sense crisis. But then again, much of the mayhem is disconnected from the output. The quality of the programming is dependent on the BBC's uniquely protected position in the marketplace, a guaranteed income that obliges it to produce quality television and radio. The obligations enable it to attract the best presenters, editors and performers. That is the key.

Forget about the myths. The BBC is awash with cash, as its DG acknowledged when he left the organisation briefly. A quick check with some BBC people yesterday suggests to me that the place is still awash with money, with some offering alarming examples of how it is being misspent. The precise level of the licence fee is, therefore, not as important as it seems. Nor can a leadership crisis arise when someone leaves who did not lead.

There is a single lesson from the Grade drama. Given that internal regulation is almost a contradiction in terms, there is an overwhelming case for the BBC to be externally regulated. The BBC haters would calm down and the BBC would become less nervously introspective. Probably in a more clearly defined structure there would be fewer myths too.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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