Auntie is in another difficult spot. Everyone loves the BBC, when they are not exasperated with her, but she does have a tendency to lurch from crisis to crisis. The immediate problem is the need to replace Chris Patten as chairman of the BBC Trust, which oversees the corporation. After a turbulent three years, he stood down a few weeks ago after a heart operation. We have an interview today with Diane Coyle, his deputy, who has taken his place temporarily. Ms Coyle, a former economics editor of The Independent, has not decided whether to put herself forward as a candidate for the permanent role. We would urge her to do so.
The leadership question for the BBC is being posed as the corporation approaches the next renewal of its charter, in 2017. Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Culture, told Total Politics yesterday that this could mean a fundamental rethink: “That will be a time to look at all aspects of the BBC: governance arrangements, licence fees and so forth. That’s where we plan to look at everything.” That might depend on whether the Conservatives are still in government, of course, but in the past, elements of the Tory party have wanted to replace the licence fee with a subscription. Even if this suggestion is resisted, the pressure exerted on the BBC by changes in technology will be greater than they were at the time of its last charter renewal, in 2007.
For the BBC to meet the challenge of justifying its contribution to the common good requires strong leadership, both of the corporation itself and of the trust, which is supposed to represent the public interest. After a false start with George Entwistle, a director-general who was not up to the challenge posed by the unrelated but coincident crises over Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine, the trust appointed Tony Hall last year. Lord Hall seems to have made a good start in steering the BBC away from the wreckage.
The Independent on Sunday takes a pragmatically principled view of the BBC. It should not really work but, most of the time, it does. Its ethos of public service means that its staff are vulnerable to the groupthink of metropolitan liberals. They are also liable, though, to over-correct sometimes for their own biases, which may lie behind some of the recent allegations that the corporation was biased in favour of Ukip. In other words, it has tried hard to be fair. Equally, it should not require a public broadcaster to make good drama, but somehow the BBC helps to sustain a creative ecology in this country that leads the world.
Who, then, would be best-placed to lead the trust for the next two-and-a-half years before the charter is renewed? Last week, Sebastian Coe’s name emerged through the porous membranes of the Establishment as a candidate. For a Conservative, he is towards the liberal centre of the spectrum, but he is still a Conservative.
Ms Coyle, on the other hand, is a conservative. She wants the corporation to embrace diversity and innovation on its core output, BBC One, so that it can survive and thrive as a public service broadcaster as technology changes. She takes the view – as well she might, being in charge of it – that the new structure of a trust at arm’s length from the BBC is “not all that broken”.
In this, she is at odds with some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who have argued that the BBC ought to be subjected to an external regulator. But in her broader view, which might be characterised as being that the corporation as a whole is “not all that broken”, she is more in tune with what the British people want from “their” BBC.
Ms Coyle would make a good leader of the Trust. She understands the need to modernise the BBC the better to defend its essence.