Will Wyatt: The BBC must dust itself down and move on

The Corporation
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The Independent Online

The BBC has taken a mighty blow, losing both chairman and chief executive within a 24-hour period. Few institutions could suffer such moments without reeling. There has been sadness from staff, which has been touching to see. There is worry, too: does all this mean shackles for BBC journalists and a corporation bowed before government?

The advertisement placed by several thousand BBC staff yesterday displayed all of this. It was, in the main, sensibly composed and showed that no red mist had descended, in spite of strong feelings. It is important that BBC staff do not see the Government as the enemy of the BBC (I believe the Government genuinely wants peace in our times). But they understand that, for all the provocation the corporation suffered, the episode shows what can happen when you screw up on a high-profile story and then don't sort out your mistakes quickly.

A new chairman is needed. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, has said that when review of the charter is over, she wants to see a big and independent BBC - so we need a big and independent figure.

There is a welcome wariness about having a New Labour figure. The Tories, when in power, appointed only their own as chairman of the BBC, and it would be pleasing to see the Government big enough to break the cycle by appointing a Tory. Two names mentioned, Michael Portillo and Chris Patten, would both convince. But if the Government wants neither New Labour nor Tory, then step forward the shrewd Terry Burns, a man who has worked at the top level in public service - as permanent secretary at the Treasury - and in business. He would have to relinquish a large salary as chairman of Abbey, but this would be a "Your country needs you'' call. He is advising Jowell on the framework for the charter renewal, and would be up to speed.

There won't be a new director general until a new chairman is in place, possibly by Easter, though likely candidates will be identified so that an appointment can swiftly follow the new chair.

Right now, the task for the BBC is to pick itself up, dust itself down and - if not start all over again - keep moving forward. The first task for the acting director general, Mark Byford, is to restore calm and reinforce the confidence of the BBC, especially of its journalists. He has the ability to inspire them and remind them that the BBC's role is no different today from what it was before Hutton reported, even if it has been punished and has apologised for its mistakes. I expect him to embrace the openness that Greg Dyke brought to the corporation and to restore the level of rigour that existed under John Birt.

He will need to maintain the impetus of the work on the BBC's case for a renewed charter. There are senior figures within the corporation, as well as many outside, who believe that he will be able to lead this case far more effectively than Dyke. Byford is a passionate believer in the full range of purposes that the BBC has, and is a public service broadcaster to his fingertips.

This was always going to be a tough two years for the BBC, and it will now be tougher. It is a severely bruised organisation; its competitors and enemies have been given extra ammunition. But we must view this setback against the BBC's great successes.

I watched the coverage of Hutton and its aftermath this week on Sky, ITN and the BBC. There was no way you could view the BBC's coverage and not admire the skill, honesty and impartiality with which it reported a story uniquely difficult for its own news team. Add to this the previous week's Panorama, which criticised BBC governors and senior management and the Government equally on peak-time airwaves, and you know this is an organisation that is profoundly important to the body politic, let alone the quality of life in Britain.

Will Wyatt was the BBC's chief executive broadcasting from 1996 to 1999, and is the author of 'The Fun Factory - A Life in the BBC' (Aurum)