Give us someone to care about
We need a BBC Director General who is popular, like David Dimbleby or Melvyn Bragg.
What happens to the BBC after the humiliating departure of George Entwistle? There need to be two kinds of change. First, structural reforms in BBC management and its news and current affairs. Second, two appointments at the top. If these are done sensibly the BBC will ride out this crisis. There are much bigger challenges ahead for the BBC: problems of identity, financial survival and audience share. But first what is to be done in the here and now?
BBC management needs to be thinned out. Licence-fee payers have watched aghast as the full byzantine weirdness of the BBC, especially its news and current affairs sections, has been exposed, with all its jargon and its legions of middle management. The BBC website listing “senior staff biographies” includes a Director of BBC People; Controller of Production, News; Head of Strategy, FM&T; Chief Operating Officer, News Group; Controller, Strategy, News and Audio & Music; General Manager, News and Knowledge; and we are still on D-F. Who knew the Swiss navy had so many admirals?
When the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, “stepped aside”, he was replaced by Liz Gibbons, who as acting editor was answerable to Adrian Van Klaveren, controller of Radio 5 Live, who reported to Peter Johnston, director of BBC Northern Ireland. Ken MacQuarrie’s report on “the McAlpine Newsnight” said a big problem was the ambiguity around who was taking ultimate editorial responsibility for the programme. This is nonsense. When I worked on The Late Show, a daily arts slot, in the early 1990s, if the editor and two executive producers had been “recused”, there were at least half a dozen experienced senior producers who could have run the programme.
Second, the news and current affairs department needs an overhaul. For years everyone said it was the jewel in the BBC’s crown. As a result, middle management has grown and has been given loads of soft commissions that no one watches or cares about.
How many BBC news or current affairs programmes have you watched recently? Around a superb core of programming (Today, The World at One, PM, the Ten O’Clock News, the News Channel, Question Time, Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics, occasionally Newsnight) has grown a weedinfested garden of uninteresting, sometimes surprisingly flawed documentaries and cheap studio shows. This needs to be cut back hard, saving money.
Next, the roles of director general and editor-in-chief should be split. The BBC has 6,000 journalists on radio and TV and online. At the same time, someone must prepare for the 2016 charter renewal and the debate about financing the BBC while overseeing the rest of the BBC empire.
Who should be the new editor-in-chief? There are two outstanding candidates: Tim Gardam, a former director of programmes at Channel 4, and Mark Damazer, a former controller of Radio 4. Both know the BBC inside out. Both are supersmart. Lord Patten’s first phone calls should be to them.
Who should be director general? Not Tim Davie. He is a bizarre choice, still remembered for bungling “Sachsgate”, when Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand got into trouble on his watch and he failed to handle it. He’s already been given the runaround by Mark Easton and Dermot Murnaghan.
The last shortlist for the post now looks ridiculous: Entwistle (“resigned”), Helen Boaden (“stepped aside”), Caroline Thomson (left), Ed Richards (policy wonk). It is worth noting how many of the rising stars at the BBC who emerged in the 1980s or 1990s have left: Michael Jackson and Mark Thompson to America, Roly Keating to run the British Library, Peter Fincham and John Whiston to ITV, Gardam and Damazer to Oxford.
The immediate task is twofold: 1) restore internal morale and 2) more importantly, restore the faith of licence-fee payers. This will not be achieved by some anonymous figure from corporate management. What is needed is a popular figure. Top of my list would be David Dimbleby, who gave a barnstorming performance on Monday’s Today programme. He has applied for the DG’s job once and the chairman’s job twice. I would sound out Melvyn Bragg, John Tusa and Michael Grade.
Any of these would be popular with audiences and staff. All those self-important MPs would back off. The lack of equivalent women of that generation says a great deal about the sexism in TV in the 1960s and 1970s. Of the younger generation, however, there’s been much talk of Marjorie Scardino, though (surprisingly) not of Jana Bennett and Janice Hadlow.
While this person restores morale, experienced executives would prepare for the charter renewal negotiations and the new editor-in-chief would sort out news and current affairs and the BBC’s byzantine management. It is a long time since the corporation was run by anyone we care about.
It’s time for a change.
David Herman is a former BBC television producer