Stephen Glover: Patten and Cameron may be on collision course

Media Studies: In other circumstances I might admire someone with an aversion to TV, but it doesn't seem an ideal qualification in a chairman-designate

Monday 14 March 2011 01:00

The former Tory Cabinet minister Chris Patten has been confirmed as the new chairman of the BBC Trust. He is a pugnacious, intelligent heavyweight. No one could doubt he is equal to the task – if he really wants to do it.

Does he, though? I was struck by a sense of detachment in the evidence he gave last week to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I wouldn't be too worried by his saying that he intends to remain a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party, despite previous BBC chairmen with political affiliations having resigned their party memberships as a symbolic gesture of independence. Lord Patten is no one's patsy.

But his decision not to give up his paid advisory work for BP, thought to bring him at least £30,000 a year, is more worrying. He will also remain Chancellor of Oxford University, an honorific role that must soak up time and energy. As chairman of the BBC Trust he will be paid £110,000 a year for what is supposed to be a four-day week, and one can't help wondering whether he will put in the hours.

Lord Patten, no spring chicken at 66, also admitted that he "hardly watches television" though he is a regular listener to the Today programme on Radio 4, as well as to Radio 3. In other circumstances I might admire someone with an aversion to TV, but it doesn't seem an ideal qualification in a chairman-designate. The BBC is above all a television broadcaster, and its TV output will experience the most drastic cutbacks, some of which were leaked last week. It is in television that the corporation will face increasing competition from Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.

If I am somewhat unclear why Lord Patten sought the job, it is more obvious why he has been appointed. The director-general, Mark Thompson (a practising Catholic like Lord Patten, by the way) has pushed for someone from the main governing party who knows where the levers are, and might also be relied upon to stand up for the BBC. As governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten did not mind aggravating the Chinese, thereby winning the plaudits of the liberal chattering classes.

Assuming he has the necessary commitment, he may be at loggerheads with Mr Cameron before long, despite their both coming from the same liberal wing of the Tory party. The Prime Minister is already much exercised (reasonably in my view) by the BBC's relentlessly negative portrayal of the supposedly disastrous consequences of cuts. Lord Patten may soon find himself called on to be the BBC's staunch defender.

Is Mr Rusbridger hiding something?

For at least two weeks, journalists have been asking why The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, has gone soft on Rupert Murdoch. When the Government announced that the media mogul could acquire the 61 per cent of BSkyB it does not already own, The Guardian – which had been leading the charge against the deal, as it had been inveighing against the News of the World's phone hacking – ran a notably damp editorial. ("This was hardly the moment to be offering Mr Murdoch even more power".) It also carried a flurry of rather sympathetic pieces on its website to mark the tycoon's 80th birthday.

What could be going on? There was speculation that Mr Rusbridger may have felt vulnerable, for some unknown reason. Was it possible that a Murdoch paper had acquired evidence that The Guardian had employed private investigators? (Actually, it did so once, in 2001, when investigating the multinational company Monsanto.)

All speculation was blown apart on Saturday when the collapse of a murder trial enabled the paper to reveal the links between a former private investigator called Jonathan Rees and the News of the World. An angry leader chided David Cameron and Nick Clegg for appointing the paper's former editor, Andy Coulson, as the Government's director of communications in May 2010 while knowing that he had re-engaged the services of Rees after his release from prison.

So The Guardian is no longer pulling its punches where Murdoch is concerned. The baffling question remains why, for at least two weeks, it did.

The BBC's litmus test for news stories

It was the News of the World which broke the story about Prince Andrew's unwise relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender, on 20 February. A week later The Mail on Sunday took it further, and the Daily Mail enthusiastically developed it. The Times and others then joined in. Almost inexplicably, The Sun, no admirer of minor royals, was slow to get going.

But the BBC sat on its hands. Only after The Guardian had splashed with a piece about the Prince on Saturday 5 March did the corporation begin to take the multiplying allegations seriously. Its new-found interest helped to redouble the energies of The Daily Telegraph, which reveals new horrors about the Prince almost every day.

The trajectory is a familiar one. If a story involves sexual shenanigans or general wrongdoing in a major public figure, the BBC hangs back, especially, as is usually the case, if a tabloid is the prime mover. It is only when The Guardian determines a story is kosher that the BBC jumps in.

How to make a Diamond sparkle

In an age of banker-bashing, Damian Reece's treacley interview of Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, in The Daily Telegraph made my eyes pop. The paper's City Editor accompanied Mr Diamond during his whistle-stop tour of Kenya while the banker "outlined his vision". Mr Diamond's purpose in being interviewed in Africa – where, we were told, he had been into the bush and watched tribal dancing – was presumably to counteract images of him as a hard-nosed, metropolitan fat cat. It was a PR stunt which cried out for the pen of a satirist, but we got Mr Reece instead. In a separate column, the City Editor considered Mr Diamond's £6.5m bonus under a headline suggesting that "he was worth every penny".

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