Why the next BBC boss must be non-political

The BBC needs a visionary director general, not a political placeman.

"Our vision – to be the most creative organisation in the world".

That’s quite a bold and imaginative goal, I would venture. What sort of qualities would you look for in a potential leader of such an organisation?

May I suggest that such a leader would be a visionary. Like some modern day soothsayer, they would understand what we want before we know we want it – a Steve Jobs-type character. They would understand every aspect of how we experience creativity in a digital age, as Larry Page and Sergey Brin so clearly do. And they would deliver creativity for all from the cradle to the grave – perhaps a little like Bob Iger does at Disney.

Now if I was searching for some sort of human chimera that delivers all those qualities, I wouldn’t spend an inordinate amount of time searching for them in and around the Palace of Westminster.

Yet apparently there are a lot of folk who seem to think that’s exactly where the best head of the BBC – for it is the Beeb's official vision that kick-starts this piece - will be found.  And put in those terms, doesn’t that seem frankly ludicrous?

Stuck in the Westminster bubble, politicians on all sides expound the merits of appointing a new director general from one side of the political divide or the other, on the basis that unless a political appointee is made, the corporation will remain hopelessly biased in the opposite direction from that of whichever commentator happens to be writing at the time. I’ve even been told today that the less-than-diamond jubilee coverage is the result of political bias  - "only something run by a lefty could have covered Jubilee celebrations so badly". Oh, come on.

Of course, covering politics is an important cog in the workings of the BBC. And dealing with politicians, in terms of both the BBC Trust (current chairman an ex-chairman of the Conservative Party) and the ultimate arbiter on the licence fee (currently one Jeremy Hunt, at least as I type) is a key aspect of the role.

But is that really what we want in a leader of the BBC – someone who’s good at chewing the fat with the men and women in grey suits? That’s not who’s going to deliver me, as a licence fee payer, the most creative organisation in the world.

And apparently there are tens of thousands of folk who agree with me.

As Caitlin Moran rather neatly put it on Twitter this morning: "the BBC should be run by some sexy rogue pirate who's really the fuck into public remit broadcasting".

You are unlikely to find one of those in SW1.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

A general view of the BBC Television Centre in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.