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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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge