Editor’s blog: opaque, remote, and unaccountable - the BBC needs its own glasnost

After Lis Howell's survey of her journalism students, and calls from right and left alike for some democratic accountability at the top of the BBC, one conclusion is clear: the Beeb needs to open up its operations to the people who pay for it.

Dan Hancox
20 June 2012

Yesterday's ourBeeb survey by Lis Howell of some of her MA journalism students at City University - some of the brightest broadcasting talent in the country - threw up very revealing results. In short, they knew and cared very little about the current race to become the next Director General of the BBC. This appointment is one of the most important in all of British public life, will carry a publicly-funded salary in the hundreds of thousands, and will directly affect the trajectory of the British media at a critical turning point in its history. Lis poses the vital question:

Why so little knowledge of, or interest in, the BBC leadership? Perhaps because the information isn’t out there to excite them. Choosing the DG is an arcane, elitist, exclusive process which goes over the heads of most people.

Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe a DG is wanted who is cool, objective, not driven by the urge to dole out bread and circuses. But what is wrong with at least letting us know more about the frontrunners – even giving them a televised debate?

'We just don't know enough about them' is a common, and I think irrefutable complaint. I like Lis's suggestion of a debate on TV - at a stroke it would raise public interest in the DG selection process, but more importantly, it would also raise the British public's interest in the issues, priorites and challenges affecting their BBC.

This piece in The Telegraph made a different, commendably bold suggestion:

Which brings me to my proposal for the BBC: the Director General should be elected, by the licence-fee paying constituency.

But then we would commend this suggestion at ourBeeb, having already made it: Dave Boyle outlined his far more sophisticated vision of a democratically elected BBC here, over a month ago! Sarcasm aside, it's heartening to see this contention, that the BBC is weakened by a democratic deficit (no taxation without representation, and all that), coming from the right - albeit Graeme Archer's motive is to rid the BBC of its (sigh) 'left-wing bias'. Some more detail of the proposal:

I don't propose a free-for-all; I'm too Tory to be entirely allergic to the concept of a role for the Establishment. Let the BBC Board pick a shortlist of three names, the initial application for which should be open to any UK citizen. Then submit those names to every licence fee payer, along with detailed biographies, and ask them to vote.

At a Royal Television Society event called 'If I ran the BBC...' earlier this week, one of the attendees remarked to me in hushed tones that Chris Patten has now begun the 'preliminary' interviews with the DG candidates. These are candidates we do not officially know the identity or number of - and yet unofficially, we know exactly who they are. This clandestine behaviour reaches its ridiculous (albeit unverified) peak with the rumour that Patten has been deliberately booking out meeting rooms and throwing red herrings around London, as to who he is meeting with, speaking to, and where, to keep the media bloggers off the scent.

The workings of the upper echelons of the BBC are so opaque that any attempt to understand them is essentially Kremlinology. It's high time the BBC had its own glasnost.

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