Lis Howell speaks out on the BBC & Dan Hind on her adversaries

OurKingdom contributor Lis Howell speaks out on making the BBC accountable as the men around her say all it needs is better leadership.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 December 2012

Lis Howell is rocking the airwaves. She is making some brilliant interventions on the radio in response the debate over the BBC in the wake of the reports on the Savile and Newsnight scandals. First on yesterday's Steve Hewlett's Media Show starting 9 minutes in, alongside John Lloyd and others and especially when, 24 minutes, she declares her work for openDemocracy and mentions the OurBeeb petition that incoming Director Generals should tell the public what they stand for. This morning she was up against Christopher Bland on the final 8.50am slot of the Today Programme and was wonderful, the BBC needs to be accountable, it's patronsing to think 'the public are not interested'. It's great to hear a sharp, experienced voice hit back so effectively against the traditional tones of British power.

PS: from Dan Hind's Return of the Public

Picking up on the Today programme Dan Hind writes in his blog Return of the Public:

There was a fascinating exchange yesterday morning on Radio 4′s Today programme. Jim Naughtie, the show’s presenter, Sir Christopher Bland, the former chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors, and Lis Howell, the head of broadcasting at City University, were discussing the most recent fallout from the Savile scandal. You can hear the exchange in full here. The discussion begins seven minutes before the end of the programme.

Things began to get interesting when Howell said that she didn’t feel that the BBC was doing enough to change its internal organization. She pointed out that, while people trusted the BBC, they didn’t necessarily trust the “complex, arcane, difficult management structure”. This immediately got Naughtie going:

It’s all very well to talk about restructuring in general ways and for you to say they’re not doing enough but if you tried to explain to the public how you change the structure of management they would quite rightly say “we are not interested”. They don’t care who’s the deputy for this or that, they just want good programmes. 

What’s immediately striking here is Naughtie’s confusion about what “the structure of management” means. People work in institutions. The structure of these institutions establishes the incentives and threats that people face. They do not determine behaviour, but they influence it. Structures favour some approaches, some styles, some guiding principles. While the public might not much care “who’s the deputy for this or that” at the BBC, they might still care about “the structure of management”. Because, well, because this is more important.

This is a distinction that seems to escape Naughtie.

Howell then mentioned an initiative of openDemocracy, which had asked that candidates for the job of Director-General publish their plans for the organization, so that the public who pay for it could have an opportunity to reflect on the BBC’s future development. Far from being uninterested people quite liked the idea. Almost four thousand of us registered our support in a few days. We didn’t hear about the idea from the BBC, of course. They spend so much time showing us how seriously they take their shortcomings that they are left with little time to publicise proposals from elsewhere. At any event, Howell concluded that Naughtie was wrong – “the public are interested, and if they aren’t, they should be”.

Politicising the BBC

A fair enough conclusion, you might have thought, given that the public pay more than £3 billion a year to the BBC. Sir Christopher Bland thought otherwise:

But your recipe would politicise the process and in my view would be disastrous.

We should pause for a minute here and think about personnel for a second. Bland is a former Chairman of the Bow Group, a Conservative think tank. He is also a former Conservative member of the GLC. He was made Chairman of the Board of Governors by a Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. John Major, neatly enough, is the current President of the Bow Group. The current Chairman of the BBC Trust is another Conservative politician, Lord Patten. He was appointed by another Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Now let’s think about structure. The BBC Trust appoints the Director-General. This is the process that Bland fears will be disastrously politicised by public participation.

“Democracy is in its Infancy”

Lis Howell made some interesting remarks in response to this:

Democracy is in its infancy … People are going to question more and more about organisations like this and how they are managed and I am afraid to say the BBC is in the front line … All the big stories yesterday were about organisations like the Met, South Yorkshire Police, UBS, all doing things without the public knowing. People are getting more educated. They are getting more interested and they are going to want to know more.

This drew Bland back into the fray:

But the public know absolutely more than enough about what’s going on in the BBC and this programme is one of the things that helps them to do that … The BBC is intensely self-critical.

(You have to love that “more than enough”)

Howell said that self-criticism was all very well, but perhaps some external criticism would be more useful.

Meanwhile Naughtie hadn’t stopped worrying away at the suggestion that the public might want to know more about the institution they pay for:

I am still struggling to think that people who are listening to this programme who are interested in all kinds of things, polio vaccination in Pakistan, the fact that people are wearing frilly jumpers again … the idea that they would want more and more information about who is going to be deputy head of this or that in the BBC, I think it’s just balderdash.

Bland chipped in here with “I’m with the balderdash view”. (He and Naughtie had already shared a dim-witted joke about something, so this wasn’t entirely surprising. But it’s worth noting the unanimity.)

openDemocracy had suggested that candidates for Director-General set out what they had in mind for the organisation. Whether or not people are interested in “more information about who is going to be the deputy head of this or that in the BBC”, this wasn’t what was being proposed. Naughtie and Bland were dismissing as “balderdash” a figment of their own imagination. Which is self-criticism of a sort.

As I say, I supported the openDemocracy proposal. I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about what the BBC is for. That conversation still hasn’t happened. Instead we are invited to watch while the BBC puts on an elaborate display of accountability. BBC journalists pursue BBC executives and ask them penetrating questions outside the offices they share. Reports are commissioned and received with gratitude. Lord Patten promises “root and branch” reform. It’s all terribly impressive.

But if you listen carefully you can hear Naughtie and Bland in the background, sharing a joke.

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