Let us not kid ourselves. The chairman of the BBC Trust, and before that the chairmanship of the BBC Governors, has always been a deeply political role. From its very earliest days, the activities of the Corporation have been of intense interest to Prime Ministers, and they have not hesitated to make their influence felt.
They have sometimes been unable to resist the temptation to appoint someone who is “one of us”, and, through the chairmanship, influence the choice and tenure of the Director-General, editor-in-chief of our most important news organisation. The resignations of Greg Dyke, as DG, and Gavyn Davies, as chairman, over the Kelly Affair were the most important recent examples of how the top of the BBC is a hazardous place to be.
Still, it is surprising that all of the candidates so far being canvassed should have open links to, or sympathy with, the Conservative Party. The absence of the very able and independent-minded economist Diane Coyle, a former staffer on this newspaper and the interim chair, from the list of runners is odd.
Less startling is the shortage of people willing to take the job on. But of course this supposedly part-time, near-patrician role is anything but.
It does matter. The Corporation is loathed by elements of the press and much of the Tory Party who make it their daily business to degrade and undermine its work and have raised the prospect of a significant cut to the licence fee in the 2017 charter. That said, as a uniquely funded public-service broadcaster it is also uniquely open to public scrutiny, and this is as it should be.
For example, the BBC would be in a much better position to secure its future if it placed its free-to-air, licence-fee-funded website on some sort of remotely commercial footing, as all of its competitors, including the one produced by The Independent, have to do; it should be no part of the BBC’s function to damage other businesses through unfair competition.
The next chair will help frame the future of the Corporation for many years to come. It needs a regulator that will protect its journalistic integrity, but curtail its anti-competitive activities. It is too important a post to be appointed faute de mieux; the net must be cast wider.