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Less velvet glove, more iron fist

The new Chair of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead has given her first public speech which was widely reviewed. Now the dust has settled – but what did Rona say, and more importantly, what did she really mean? 

Lis Howell
20 February 2015

Professor Lis Howell, Director of Broadcasting at City University London, heard Rona’s speech on 3 February, and was one of the reviewers on the Media Show, BBC Radio 4, the next day. She has now had time to mull it over. Here she argues that Rona Fairhead may need to be less velvet glove and more iron fist. Either way she must be demonstrably in charge.

Rona Fairhead in the middle, 2013. Financial Times/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved

Rona Fairhead gave a speech that had at least three qualities. It was clear, and accessible. It had enough personal detail to make her seem a warm human being. It also tagged her as a lifelong BBC aficionada. It attracted attention, but the various papers and magazines all found something different to pick up. 

Broadcast magazine said “Rona Fairhead has made a passionate case for the BBC Trust’s role.” The Daily Telegraph reported “Rona Fairhead said licence fee payers should have their say on the BBC’s future.” The Guardian said “The BBC Trust is to look into £100m bid to save BBC3 channel”. Meanwhile Ariel, the BBC staff newsletter, ran “Hands off the BBC, Fairhead tells MPs.” In the end, perhaps we should have asked the real Rona Fairhead to stand up. But as all things to all men (and men were the majority of the RTS audience) it was a pretty good try. 

I think, on reflection I know why this happened. The research I have done into women experts on TV and radio news pointed up one thing very clearly. Even today, women in authority have to be very careful about their ‘pushy’ image (which perhaps explains why so few women asked Rona Fairhead questions at this event). A fascinating American study in 2004 revealed that women can be respected and obeyed just as much as men when it comes to solving problems. But the nasty side effect is that women who take the lead are far more likely to be disliked. I suspect that Rona Fairhead has decided, so far, that being a bit of a chameleon, in public, is a good idea.

But what about in private? Can anyone that powerful be so pleasant? Could it be that Fairhead is cultivating a girl-next-door manner not unlike Tony Hall’s nice boy from Birkenhead?  Actually, I knew a lot of nice boys from Birkenhead but only one became Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House! Looking at her track record, Fairhead has not been particularly high profile. She is relatively new to the big public stage and probably has neither the experience nor the desire to emulate her predecessors, Christopher Bland and Patten. They were Big Beasts crashing through the undergrowth of press coverage like Kings of the Jungle. And she is nothing if not circumspect. When she was appointed last September she said that if the BBC Trust needed to change, then she would roll with it – which was what the politicians needed to hear. But a few months later, with an audience of BBC supporters, she made no reference to changing the Trust. She actually referred to the Trust’s ten year plan (whereas some commentators wouldn’t give it ten months). There is a danger, perhaps, that Ms Fairhead tells people what they want to hear.

And what else did they want to hear on 3 February, aside from the fact that the BBC governance was working so wonderfully well that it wasn’t worth mentioning? Well, the speech had four main points. She asserted the BBC’s need for guaranteed editorial and financial independence. There was a corporate silent hurrah from the audience (well, who wouldn’t agree?). She talked, as all BBC chiefs do, about efficiency and cost cutting - but not at the expense of the product. Another silent hurrah. She called for public involvement in policy and charter renewal. There was a slightly puzzled hurrah for that one. But then Ms Fairhead went on, comfortingly, to confirm that the latest Trust survey indicates that the British love the BBC (and everyone who works there) almost as much as they love the monarchy. Phew! Lastly, she iterated the importance of the nations and regions. That got a rather muted hurrah - but there was a sense that she was saying something worthy, which wouldn’t disturb them much in W1. So there was nothing in the speech not to like, for that particular audience. They were possibly a little vague about the relationship between the BBC, and, say, the Cumberland News but overall the audience was pretty impressed.

But can that be the real Rona? Here is a person who was Chief Executive of the Financial Times Group (a subsidiary of Pearson) for seven years and served as a non-executive director on the boards of several large corporations, including HSBC Holdings and PepsiCo, and as a "business ambassador" for UK Trade & Investment. She cannot possibly be that unchallenging by nature.  Or could things have changed? Could she perhaps have “gone native” (a horrible but effective expression) and become the BBC’s ultimate cheerleader? She denied it but it’s always a danger. For some people, the ability to see the BBC as just another organisation evaporates when they enter New Broadcasting House. There are people I know who would rather change loo rolls at the BBC than work for another broadcaster, and former hard-nosed commercial TV execs who become dewy eyed at the thought of dear old Auntie. But surely someone as smart and commercial as Rona Fairhead cannot be like that? Not with her sort of background?

She says not and I believe her, although I found the references to programmes that had changed her life a little bit over the top. It’s a familiar tune now, also played by Tony Hall in October 2013. Did neither of these people ever watch ITV? It was very big in the North West when I was young! By her act of homage I think Rona Fairhead was trying to place herself as friend not foe with her audience and she succeeded. But perhaps at the expense of not looking as objective as she should, as the guardian of so much of our licence fee contributions. I desperately wanted to find a tougher Rona Fairhead in there somewhere, and I tried hard, afterwards, to try and unpeel the speech and to find Rona’s real message. Could the clue lie not in the speech, but in the off-the-cuff  Q&A session? 

Well, yes, that was a bit more revealing, although as usual many of the questions were more like declarations. One question focussed on Tony Hall’s “Compete or Compare” strategy, announced last July. This strategy would transform the way the BBC produces its programmes. They would throw out their in-house quota and commission anything from everyone, even Sky or ITV. Some people say this is already happening by stealth.

The questioner wanted to know the Trust’s view. Rona Fairhead calmly reported that the Trust had not yet been consulted, eight months later. But why not? Isn’t that exactly the sort of strategic change in BBC policy that the Trust is there to endorse – or otherwise? Similarly, the Trust was supposed to decide on whether BBC Three would be shifted from broadcast TV to online. They are still deliberating but there is evidence the shift is slowly happening by default (Steve Hewlett, Guardian Monday: February 8th ) while the Trust goes through the motions, distracted perhaps by the attempt to ‘save’ BBC Three by some high profile independent broadcasters.

In both cases it is clear that the Trust – there to decide whether what the BBC executive wants is in the public interest – should have been more involved. Fairhead did not turn a hair when admitting that the Trust hadn’t been sent a proposition about “compete and compare”. Her sangfroid led one person to say to me afterwards that he believed that she was "sending Tony a message" in this speech. Could this be the answer – that the speech was full of coded messages? A sort of ‘spot the iron fist in the velvet glove’? But why would Rona Fairhead need to send secret messages? Can’t she just pick up the phone and say “Oi, Tony, what’s this ‘Compete or Compare’ all about?”

It seems not. And perhaps this is the point. If she did call him up, what could she say? “OK, we need to know about this, to apply a Public Value Test”? And what might be the reply? “Suit yourself” perhaps? What is going to make Tony comply with Rona? In fact, there is no iron fist. The Trust has few powers of sanction. Unlike Ofcom, they cannot fine, or take away licenses to broadcast. There is an odd arrangement for a ‘licence’ from the BBC Trust for each service in the BBC, but there is no history of any service being reduced or suspended by the Trust – so what is that really about? What can the Trust actually DO?  They declaim on their website, and Rona Fairhead repeated in her speech, “Our job is to get the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” But how? 

Well, there has already been this enormous survey, apparently, though its findings aren’t public. A bit of a contradiction there…. But as result of this she hopes to rewrite the BBC’s ‘strategic objectives’ with greater input from the public. The survey has already told her that over 80% of the British public seem to love the BBC just as it is. Or perhaps not quite. A majority said that an independent body should administer the licence fee – though none of them named the BBC Trust as that body. But that was skated over in this speech….  And the licence fee didn’t get a mention despite widespread mutterings that is now outdated (the licence fee, as I’ve said before, is older than women’s suffrage!). 

However new strategic objectives will be written. The old ones, by the way, are framed on the Trust’s feisty website as a ‘challenge’ to the BBC, which makes the Trust sound very roughty toughty. But actually these objectives are just what you would expect. The Trust says that the BBC should:-

• Make the most creative and distinctive output

• Innovate online to create a more personal BBC

• Serve all audiences

• Improve value for money through a simpler, more efficient, and more open BBC

This all looks fine and dandy. So how are these strategic objectives going to be rewritten with more public input? Will we all get a bash at drafting?  Perhaps after tea on a Sunday night, with an on-air vote? “Strategic objectives” aren’t the stuff of The Voice. They sound like ‘management speak’ - those phrases which we’re all a bit cynical about - like “mission statements”, and “outcomes”, and “matrixes” and “low hanging fruit”. They’re all about marketing and branding – aimed at the public, not from the public, and not about public service. Sadly, nothing has ever surpassed John Reith’s idea that the BBC should inform, educate and entertain. So what difference is Ms Fairhead’s new broader conversation going to make in reality?  That sort of thing is always a nightmare anyway – just listen to Radio Five Live if you want public input.

So we have a very sensible and circumspect Chair of the BBC Trust, who so far won’t rock the boat. BBC fans at the RTS event, certainly seemed to feel she was a safe pair of hands. Maybe one of the reasons they are so reassured is because there is little or nothing she can do about the way the BBC executive runs the show. The BBC Trust tells us “We issue a service licence to every BBC service stating what we expect it to deliver and how much it can spend. We set the BBC’s editorial guidelines and protect the BBC’s independence. We monitor performance to ensure that the BBC provides value for money while staying true to its public purposes.”

Do they really? How? With what control? By reducing budgets? I don’t think so. Frankly, this stuff could be seen as so much guff. The Trust has no teeth. Or none you can find on their website. It is full of forceful statements. But there is absolutely no indication of how it is going to do anything - other than by rapping knuckles in reports after the horse has bolted. You can’t help wondering if the Trust is more cheerleader than critic, more defender of the faith that translator of the Vu|gate, if I may refer, in homage of course, to that wonderful drama Broadchurch. Oops, sorry, I meant Wolf Hall. 

I think Rona Fairhead must be tough in reality, and I think she could have teeth. It’s interesting that the issue which has already taken up much of her time is that of the BBC’s relationship with local newspapers. She knows about the newspaper industry. For decades, local papers have raged at the BBC in the regions, for using the papers’ journalistic infrastructure as a free source of content for the BBC local news. James Harding, Head of News at the BBC, has already made noises about partnerships with local media to redress this, and Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local TV means that the licence fee, and BBC content deals, will support local digital terrestrial TV. But that won’t help the papers unless they own a digital terrestrial TV station. And nothing either Fairhead or Harding can do, will satisfy newspaper groups who just want the BBC to stop pinching their content. To try and tackle the problem of regional news nicking, fits perfectly with the Trust’s remit of ensuring the BBC does not take all the oxygen out of the commercial marketplace. But it is also a virtually unsolvable problem. And as Rona Fairhead goes North to tackle the regions, back in London, the BBC Executive seems to do what it likes.

I can cope with the tributes to Dr Who and the Today programme, and if that makes the audience at the RTS feel better –fine. But those of us who don’t work at the BBC, or who don’t owe the BBC our living or who don’t define our lives by BBC programmes but just watch them (those of us, in fact, who merely owe it a very large chunk of £145.50 a year) want to know how she is going to protect us. People at the event kept on saying, in her defence, that she was "damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t".  They explained that she’s in a difficult position - critic and cheerleader. In fact Rona Fairhead carefully avoided being either and to my mind fell right through the middle. Of course she isn’t there to soothe a group of industry executives who want everything to go on as it did. Nor is she there to close down the BBC. But that doesn’t mean "damned if you do. Damned if you don’t". She has a clear, unbiased job to do. She is there to govern the BBC. And the nature of that governance was the biggest thing missing from her speech, when it was the one thing that should have been right there at the heart of it. The Trust has be clearly understood and supported by every licence fee payer. That is the job – not rewriting strategic objectives. We need to know how those strategic objectives are enforced.

So I would say to Rona Fairhead – get to grips with the inherent muddle which is BBC governance. You are cool, calm, sensible, capable of clear thought and the long view. Someone – probably you – has to make the Trust defensible and then defend it, or preside over its replacement by something better. But whoever does that must take the reins. It can be either with velvet gloves or iron fists. It doesn’t really matter, whatever suits you, Ms Fairhead – but do it before the horse bolts again.     

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