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12 April 2004

Grade expectations at the BBC

Auntie's new chairman may be very popular, but he won't be able to choose the next director general

By David Cox

The arrival of a charismatic and popular new chairman may have transformed perceptions of the BBC, but all is far from sorted. The immediate issue is the appointment of a new director general to replace Greg Dyke. It is being assumed that Michael Grade will swiftly shoo in the hotshot of his choice, yet things are not so simple.

It is not the chairman who appoints the director general, but the board of governors as a whole. Some of them want the acting DG, Mark Byford, to get the job. After all, Byford has faithfully implemented the governors’ post-Hutton policy of apology and abasement, and he could doubtless be relied on to keep future troubles at bay. The governors’ attempt to engineer a fait accompli, by closing the applications list before the new chairman had been chosen, was seen by some as an attempt to give Byford a fair wind.

Grade, however, knows he must stop Byford at all costs. It is not just that Byford is a protege of the former DG John Birt, while Grade has declared himself “very much a Dykeist”. Both inside and outside the BBC, it is now taken for granted that Grade will sweep Byford aside. If he fails to achieve this, he will be a busted flush from the word go, and he is not going to put up with that. So he has moved swiftly to re-open the appointment process.

None the less, Grade cannot actually bring back Dyke, in spite of newspaper speculation that he might. Contrary to popular belief, Dyke did not offer the governors his resignation: they sacked him. Consequently, there is no way they could ever reinstate him. Dyke believes a new chairman could reasonably demand the resignations of all of the present governors, on the grounds that they were complicit in the decisions for which the previous chairman, Gavyn Davies, felt it necessary to depart. Unfortunately, the affable Mr Grade does not go in for this kind of hardball.

A compromise must therefore be found, and that means a candidate with broad, rather than deep, appeal. This is bad news for high-profile figures from outside, such as the media’s current favourite, Mark Thompson, the chief executive of Channel 4, and his predecessor, Michael Jackson.

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Thompson appears unwilling to apply if there is any risk at all he could be rejected and forced to return to his present job with his tail between his legs. So, to get him in, Grade would have to persuade the whole board to issue an invitation. That would be asking a lot, when some governors might not only prefer Byford, but also hate the idea of a forceful outsider armed with an unfamiliar agenda.

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This means that Grade may have to make do with a less established character. An internal candidate would be easiest for everyone to accept, and there are insiders with another killer advantage: they are women. It would be a bold governor who would block the arrival of the first-ever female DG. Since such an appointment would be both popular and headline-grabbing, it might appeal strongly to the new chairman’s highly developed sense of showmanship. So step forward Jana Bennett, BBC director of television, and Jenny Abramsky, director of radio.

Unfortunately, while Bennett is a programme wizard, she is an unimpressive public performer. Abramsky is tough, shrewd and effective, but she has hardly worked in television at all. Both would require more support from their chairman than characters such as Thompson or Jackson. And although Grade is unsurpassed as a communicator, the times require other skills as well. Navigating the tricky waters of charter review will require application, vision and cunning.

Yet in his autobiography, Birt describes Grade as “weak creatively, managerially and strategically”. The two former friends had suffered a terrible falling-out. All the same, some at the BBC are wondering if the new top team will be up to the challenges ahead. Already, Grade has startled some by promising to increase the distance between governors and management, even during the present charter term. If the governors are to concentrate on regulation, they have got the wrong chairman. Grade is by nature a cheerleader, not a scold.

After insisting that the BBC must be secured for our children and grandchildren, he has thrown his weight behind its current funding mechanism. He has, however, also noted that the licence fee “may not be immortal” but should at least see him out. Some detect inconsistency, to say the least, in remarks such as these.

The goodwill that Grade currently enjoys will take him and the corporation quite a long way. But will it take them far enough?