Good guy, bad process – another failure by the BBC Trust

The scandal at the BBC takes another turn. First, it suppressed a programme it should have made, revealing its leading star was a child abuser. Then, it transmits one alleging a retired colleague of Margaret Thatcher was an abuser when he wasn't. Now, it appoints a new boss at three times the Prime Minister's salary, in secret in just a few days. It may be a solution but it exposes a systemic problem.

 

Tony Hall – otherwise known as Lord Hall of Birkenhead – has been selected as the next Director-General of the BBC. He is a well qualified candidate, and may turn out to be an excellent DG, but the way he was chosen was an utter affront to the need for transparency and the standard requirements for due process that are de rigueur in most of the public sector. No chairman of the BBC Trust could have been appointed in this precipitate fashion: the Nolan rules forbid it.

The BBC Trust spent all of 11 days on their DG search. It was more a matter of finding than looking. They admit they made just one telephone call, to Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House. They argue that speed was of the essence, given the spectacular collapse of the last person they unanimously decided was the best possible candidate, after a 3-month search: George Entwistle. That well-publicised process cost £189,000, attracted some 180 applicants, and concluded with interviews with at least four short-listed candidates.

Notably, Hall declined to participate in that search, claiming, at 61, to be too old. Last year, he started drawing his BBC pension of £82,000 per annum, accumulated over the 28 years of his previous employment there. That ended in 2001, after his failed attempt to be selected as DG through a genuinely competitive process, in 1999.

He failed again in 2004, after the successful 1999 applicant, Greg Dyke, had been ousted by the BBC Governors in the wake of the Hutton Report. In 2004, Mark Thompson – who, like Hall, had also been a BBC trainee and lifer, and had also left the BBC after Dyke’s appointment, to become a chief executive, at Channel 4 – declined to apply for the job, but his credentials persuaded the BBC to turn down all actual applicants, and approach him directly.

Eventually, Thompson was induced to accept the job, at a salary double that enjoyed by Dyke, by then BBC chairman Michael Grade. Grade is a previous chief executive of Channel 4, where Hall is currently a board director. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the first chief executive of Channel 4, had moved to the Royal Opera job after being turned down as BBC DG – this is a very small world.

By some accounts, the meeting between Hall and the Trust was as much him interviewing them as them interviewing him. Six months after declaring himself too old for the job, he was now not too old. Perhaps it helps when you are not in a competitive process. That he will be 66 when the BBC Charter comes up for renewal in 2016/7 was obviously no deterrent for a Trust in a hurry.

But the hurry was much more to do with the Trust and its chairman trying to recover some lost face after the Entwistle fiasco than with an urgent need to find Entwistle’s permanent replacement. There was a plausible acting DG in place, in the shape of Tim Davie. After Dyke was ousted, at the culmination of a crisis at least as severe as the McAlpine libel, the BBC was happy to leave his deputy, Mark Byford, in place for many months whilst a detailed search was undertaken. Thompson’s appointment was the end, not the beginning, of that process.

This month, the Trust failed to return to the fruits of the search they had only just completed, a few months earlier. They declined to re-interview any of the other short-listed candidates from that process. Ed Richards, the chief executive of Ofcom, who was persuaded to join the formal process (only for his name to be leaked) and who is the only person short-listed originally still to be available, could well feel mightily used by the BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten, if it turns out that his role was just to give cover to a failed inside appointment.

The Trust also declined to canvass other potential candidates who had not participated – for one reason or another – in the first process.  They turned instead to a man who anyway cannot take up his appointment until March, just in time for his 62nd birthday.

Does age matter? Perhaps it doesn’t – Sir Howard Stringer, when he was invited to be interviewed for the DG job in 2004, at the age of 62, was pointedly asked by the BBC selection panel: “how old are you?” His reply was priceless: “one day older than when this panel invited me to fly over from New York to be interviewed”. The following year, he was appointed chairman and CEO of the Sony Corporation, where he remained in post for seven years.

What, anyway, was the Trust’s urgency? Hall will play no part in the Pollard review of the original decision to drop the first Newsnight investigation into Savile: that report is due next month. As for the second review being conducted, into the culture and practices of the BBC in the days when Savile worked there, it is unlikely to report in 2013, let alone 2012.

The Trust’s press release claimed that Hall’s background in news will help allay concerns about perceived BBC weakness in that area. This suggests the Trust have not understood the BBC’s internal report about what went wrong with the second Newsnight.

Essentially, that fatally flawed item fell through the cracks in the news review system that Entwistle had instituted, with the Trust’s support, after the row over the non-broadcast of the Savile item had erupted. He established two reporting lines – one for all non-Savile items, passing through the normal chain of command, and another for Savile-related items, with the top two news executives sidelined, because of their involvement in the Pollard review.

Amidst the confusion that resulted (who on Newsnight should decide whether a story on child abuse in North Wales was Savile-related or not?) it was not until lunch-time on the day of transmission of the McAlpine story that it was decided it was Savile-related. The stand-by team, therefore, rather than the established news team, became the route for clearance. This culminated in sign-off by a former marketing executive who just happened to be on the news management board as the head of BBC Northern Ireland.

Contrary to the impression created by the Trust, there was no issue with the normal management of the news empire as far as the McAlpine item was concerned: they had just been by-passed, on Entwistle’s orders.

Hall’s credentials in this area are anyway not very different from Entwistle’s own, as a former – very successful – editor of Newsnight. Given that virtually no editorial decisions on specific stories reach the DG’s office, this proffered reason for choosing Hall bears little examination.

The real problem for the Trust was that it, itself, as a body charged with oversight, had completely failed to pick up the story of the suppressed Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile, despite it appearing in their press cuttings in January, February and March, as six national newspapers and the Oldie magazine revealed what had happened – including the allegation that the report had referred to sexual abuse of underage girls on BBC premises.

An alert Trust might have pre-empted the damage done to the BBC by Entwistle’s embarrassing interrogation by the Commons Select Committee on Media in October, if they had asked him exactly the same questions in June, and so realised that they could not possibly appoint him.

This failure of scrutiny was compounded by the devastatingly slow and inadequate response of the BBC and the BBC Trust to the Savile documentary broadcast by ITV in October, which has been documented in great detail by Professor Stewart Purvis of City University in his blog. 

The possible culpability of Entwistle’s predecessor, Mark Thompson, does not escape this forensic examination: Purvis reckons that Thompson’s office had ten separate opportunities to inquire into what exactly Savile might have done on BBC premises, none of which was pursued – journalists at Thompson’s new employers, The New York Times, have now taken this up with avidity.

The Trust not only failed to carry out its responsibilities when it appointed Entwistle. It allowed its chairman to act as if he were an old-fashioned chairman of the BBC, not the Trust, giving regular interviews about the Savile affair, most of which proved to be deeply embarrassing: not least when he slavishly adopted the BBC’s cover story for why the first Newsnight report was dropped. A story that then had to be abandoned.

Up to 2006, the BBC had a Board of Governors, which was an integral part of the Corporation. This was abolished by Tessa Jowell in 2006, and the BBC Trust created instead. It was charged with being a regulator with more distance between itself and the BBC, not less.

As it turned out, the Trust proved to be a much more feeble body than Ofcom (which regulates all other UK-licensed broadcasters), and was sometimes treated with near-contempt by the BBC executive. Perhaps part of Patten’s motive for turfing out Thompson was to find a more pliant successor.

Few people now expect the Jowell governance model to survive the next review of the BBC Charter. Meanwhile, hopes that Hall might embark on the radical re-shaping of the BBC that Patten conceded was necessary in the wake of the Entwistle debacle were dampened by the Trust’s press release announcing his appointment.

The unacceptable arrangement whereby the DG also chairs the BBC executive board – despite the inclusion of a minority of non-executive directors, one of whom should surely be the chair – was confirmed as part of Hall’s job description, in defiance of best practice governance arrangements.

The problems with this structure were acutely exposed by the Savile crisis. Entwistle had to stand aside as chairman of his own executive for the purposes of appointing and managing the two inquiries, because he would be required to give evidence to them. Instead, Dame Fiona Reynolds, recently appointed to the board as its designate senior non-executive, took on that role.

There are several London pubs called The Two Chairmen. At the BBC, it seems three are needed.

The petition launched by Our Beeb when Entwistle resigned comprised a very modest proposal: that the Trust should ask candidates for the vacant DG post to publish a short statement of their vision for the BBC. But even that – and the 3,700 signatures it quickly gathered – proved too much for a governance structure that has failed repeatedly and publicly: and unsurprisingly, failed again.

Lord Patten was denounced by Greg Dyke in the Daily Telegraph of Saturday November 25th, who shrewdly observed that Patten was trying to be an old-style BBC chairman, operating front and centre, when the Jowell structure required a role somewhere between spectator and referee, and yet was failing to be one, by not standing side by side with Entwistle when the crisis broke.

This week, Patten was quizzed by the Commons Committee that had skewered Entwistle. He displayed his distaste for being held to account by Parliament – or, at least, by hard-line Tory parliamentarians like Phillip Davies MP.

And he revealed further evidence of the confusion at the top of BBC governance. Last week, the non-executive director who serves as chairman of the remuneration committee of the BBC’s executive board, Anthony Fry, explained to Parliament why he had succumbed to George Entwistle’s demands for a handsome pay-off before departing. This week, it was Patten who explained why he had approved the pay-off. But which of them should it have been? Answers on a postcard.

Could it be that what drove Patten to plump for Hall was the need to restore some credibility to his own position? Gladstone was called an old man in a hurry: maybe this is the best description of Patten, who has only two more years in post. It meant that the only solution was to appoint a lightly less old man than himself to the most important post in British media, without approaching any other possible candidates. The whole process – or rather, lack of it – is a salutary lesson for those still inclined to entrust our key institutions to the greying great and good.

 

About the author

David Elstein is Chairman of openDemocracy's Board. He is also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group. He is a director of Kingsbridge Capital Advisors, and a supervisory board member of two German cable companies.