What we should do about the BBC

The UK's greatest cultural institution, the BBC, is appointing a new leader as its management collapses internally. The candidates must share their visions with the public and break the secrecy that bedevills the Corporation. OurBeeb argued for this a few short months ago and was ignored. Now let the change begin!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
12 November 2012

Image: Ben Clinch

In the aftermath of its triumphant Olympic coverage the BBC is suffering a nervous breakdown, as it purges its Director General of just 54 days. Given its position as the country’s greatest cultural institution the breakdown is a British one as well – part of a succession of calamities of the institutions: Parliament, the Banks, the City, the Press, the police, the NHS, the civil service, the list goes on.

But the official line being taken by the BBC itself, or at least by Chris Patten, the Chairman of the Trust that supposedly regulates the Corporation, is that it is a “tragedy” that will be rectified by taking “a grip”. This will then reassure the staff and re-establish “public trust”. Listening to the way that officials, including politicians, talk about the need to “restore public trust in the BBC”, you’d have thought the public was just lying on its back waiting to have its trust so restored.

Not for one moment has any official suggested that perhaps in the age of the internet it is the BBC that needs to learn to trust the public – a public that is in fact standing on its own feet. Rather than merely presuming the public to be credulous, populist and so unwashed as to be in need of the Corporation, those responsible for it need to respect the public as being capable of exerting judgment, maybe even diverse judgments. Such respect means accepting that the public has the right to hold the BBC to account as our defining public service broadcaster.

How this should be done in the present circumstances is as simple as it was six months ago after the last Director General resigned. The candidates to replace him should be encouraged to publish their short vision or manifesto in public as part of their application to the Trust. Those who are short-listed should be obliged to issue longer more worked out public statements before they have their final interviews.

While the appointment will remain a decision by the Trust, the principles that lie behind it, the values that motivate it, and the objectives that are associated with it, will be open and public.

It will then be possible to challenge the Trustees as to why they went with one vision and not another. The candidates will educate each other as to possible ways forward. And it will become clear that the BBC is not a private corporation or a mere department of the civil service but is an architect of our media: our news, culture, music and drama, the creator of our programmes and shaper of our current affairs. Who leads it, therefore, should be more our Director General than the Chairman’s.

What must not happen is that Chris Patten must not proceed as he did last time, in the old establishment way, making an appointment entirely behind closed doors, delivering a fix to his own liking, strengthening his own “grip” on the machine.

We did tell you so

Among the most difficult things to pull off in writing of any kind, let alone journalism, is to claim that we have been right all along, and keep the interest of you the reader. But earlier this year, when the BBC Trust announced its then Director General Mark Thompson would be stepping down, it made clear that it would keep the appointment of his successor to itself. The independent film maker and producer Eric Abraham found this slick way of doing things intolerable. Here was a public position paying many times the salary of the Prime Minister and exercising huge influence over the whole of the country’s life being filled by little more than a cabal. Surely this is wrong? Surely it is our Beeb. Shouldn’t someone try to do something about it?

That’s why we launched OurBeeb as a six-month project to engage with the new appointment and try and arouse the public’s interest. We did so to defend and help build public service broadcasting and digital culture in 21st century Britain - working with other partners especially the English department of the Kings College London.

OurBeeb urged an open appointment process. We pressed for greater and clearer accountability at the BBC, as part of a renewal of its primary creative role. The head-hunters under the instructions of the Trust kept the process closed. No applicant made any attempt to engage the public. It appears there was a shortlist of four. No one knows for sure who was on the long list. Instead, we are told that George Entwistle was the unanimous choice of all eleven members of the BBC Trust.

How frail this secretive process proved to be  - fed by the BBC’s own precautionary management created under Thompson. For the problem was never and is not lack of public trust, As the Financial Times reports,

“In a survey by Ofcom, the media regulator, in November 2011, 59 per cent of people said the BBC was the news source they most trusted. The next, ITV News, scored 7 per cent. No newspaper beat 2 per cent. There are signs that this level of trust is being eroded and a recent poll suggested it had fallen below half, but it is clearly still a long way ahead.”

The problem of trust is that, in the absence of any larger sense of purpose and direction that comes with an active, open engagement with the outside world, senior BBC management do not know how to trust each other.

OurBeeb argued that the internal know-nothing aspect of BBC life is the other side of the coin to its concede-nothing reaction to external criticism. Alongside an unequalled range of arguments and discussion, OurBeeb held conversations with Greg Dyke which came alive on the nature of trust in the BBC and the energy it can generate; with Claire Enders who insisted on the need to protect the BBC and the country’s creative vitality from the homogenisation of global corporate power; and with Richard Eyre who described how he battled to persuade BBC management that good, original programmes are at the heart of its mission. David Elstein called for a re-structuring of the BBC to take up Ofcom’s challenge to create plural sources of news in its vast output, in response to the growing dominance of the BBC’s share of news consumption across all UK media.

These real-world conversations culminated in a forum where the need to protect and encourage creativity rapidly became the watchword – from the funding model to the digital commons that Tony Ageh argues is the future of public service broadcasting.

We tried to get the officials, including Entwistle himself, to listen. We proposed a session at which some of the UK’s most eminent media experts could share their concerns, to be chaired by Liz Forgan. The idea was turned down flat. Now it seems that Patten has announced there will be an internal re-shaping of the BBC. Will he in any way acknowledge the need for windows on the public like OurBeeb to make for a new era of engagement with the BBC?

To tackle pressing questions of management and editorial control, if there is not to be another such crisis a few years down the road, the Corporation needs a vision of its role as a public service broadcaster across the coming half century. Such a vision needs to be embedded in a clear understanding of the digital future that faces all media organisations.

Perhaps, in the aftermath of the disaster which has befallen it, and has swept away its DG just hours after he told the Today programme on Radio 4 that he intended to stay, the BBC will be willing to learn about the openness necessary to achieve this. OurBeeb’s aim has been to make sure that the debate about the future of the BBC does not take place exclusively behind its closed doors.

The BBC needs to learn to trust itself sufficiently to begin reform from within in a way that is transparent. The best way to start is for the new leadership candidates to tell us, the public, what kind of BBC they stand for and why.  


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