Stephen Glover: Patten paves the way for a return to Reithian values at the BBC

Media Studies:

Stephen Glover
Monday 30 January 2012 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Did last week's events indicate a change of direction at the BBC? On Monday Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, told The Times that head hunters had been instructed to find a successor to Mark Thompson as director-general. On Wednesday he made a speech in which he suggested the BBC should eschew "vulgar" programmes and not be frightened of being seen as "intellectual".

Mr Thompson had presumably discussed his departure with Lord Patten. Whether he wanted to leave the BBC as soon as this autumn may be doubted, and it seems certain he resented the manner in which the chairman publicly announced his departure. Why did he do this? The general view that Lord Patten was trying to advertise his supremacy at the Corporation is probably correct.

His speech on Wednesday should also be interpreted in this light. In effect he was saying that the BBC had dumbed down too far. One phrase stood out. "I remain unashamedly of the view that introducing people to good books, great paintings, or beautiful music – allowing them to better pursue and appreciate their passions and interests – helps to enrich them as individuals and to improve the quality of civic life for all of us." Several decades have passed since any BBC chairman or director-general spoke in such idealistic, Reithian tones. Lord Patten's remarks inevitably carried a rebuke to Mr Thompson.

It is an interesting reflection that both men come from similar backgrounds. Both were educated at private Catholic schools and at Oxford, where Mr Thompson took a first and Lord Patten a "good second". Politically there is little to choose between them: Lord Patten is of the soft Right; Mr Thompson seems to be of the soft Left. But there they diverge. Despite his background, Mr Thompson has not exactly resisted the cultural tide. He was the man, after all, who paid £6m for the services of Jonathan Ross.

Of course we can't know how Lord Patten would have behaved had he pursued a career in broadcasting. In a multi-channel and ratings-driven world there are enormous pressures on mainstream channels such as BBC1 and BBC2 to dumb down. Mr Thompson has continued down the path his predecessors skipped along. Lord Patten (who is also Chancellor of Oxford University) can more easily play the role of ivory tower idealist for the very reason that he has not spent his life in television.

But I wouldn't underestimate his determination, or his political skills so evident last week, to reverse the slide downmarket. His difficulty is that he and the BBC Trust may have to choose a successor to Mr Thompson who has been formed out of the same clay. Moreover, BBC1 and BBC2 have acquired a mindset which dozens of executives will wish to perpetuate while Lord Patten, working as chairman three or four days a week, has other fish to fry.

Nonetheless, he is an intelligent bruiser who likes to get his own way. I found his missionary zeal and idealism refreshing. His suggestion that the BBC should aim to be "intellectual" rather than "highbrow" is surely correct, as is his contention that it is possible to be both "popular" and "intelligent" at the same time. The BBC broadcasts a lot of vulgar dross that is often not particularly popular. What, in the end, is the point of a public service broadcaster if not to provide what the market won't?

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