BBC bracing for difficult times
By Kate Bulkley
Feb. 10, 2004
LONDON -- Lord Hutton delivered his report two weeks ago, but the BBC is still reeling, and the aftershocks look like they will continue for at least the next few months.
That's the timetable the government has set for appointing a new chairman to run Britain's biggest broadcaster. Only after he or she is in place — probably by April — will the BBC be able to appoint a new director general to replace Greg Dyke, who closely followed BBC chairman Gavyn Davies out the door in the wake of Hutton's scathing criticism of BBC editorial practices.
"The hiatus in management is going to be very uncomfortable," said former Five CEO David Elstein, who is chairing a committee for the Conservative Party looking into the future of the BBC. His committee's report will be made public Feb. 24 and will offer a new approach to how the BBC could be governed.
The BBC last week pulled its submission to the government on the review of its royal broadcasting charter — which had been signed off by Dyke — until its new leaders are on board.
"The BBC's governance is clearly in need of considerable attention," Elstein said. "The fact that the prime minister appoints the chairman of the BBC is ludicrous. It's as ludicrous as the prime minister appointing the archbishop of Canterbury, which is a similar situation — a quasi-governmental body, nominally independent with a major belief system but subject to the (government) whim of the day — in light of the huge dispute between the government and the BBC."
The controversial dispute arose out of the BBC story that Tony Blair's government had "sexed up" the Iraq dossier to make a better case for war. "It's ludicrous that this appointment process should be happening," Elstein said.
Elstein said in an interview that the BBC chairman job will be "difficult to fill" because the entire structure of how the BBC is governed may be changed as part of the government's review of the BBC's broadcasting charter, which is due to expire in 2006.
The next chairman must lead the BBC through the charter review process — which will be tough enough — but at the same time, a separate review by Ofcom about public service broadcasting programming also is under way.
Some names for the chairman have emerged in the U.K. media, including several high-level Tories, such as Chris Patten, the ex-governor of Hong Kong, and John Major, the former prime minister whose political affiliations are seen by some as an antidote to Davies and Dyke, both of whom are high-profile Labour supporters.
"Although they are talking about some politico getting the job, with Labour thinking this is going to show how nice they are if they appoint a Tory like Chris Patten, I think this would be a disastrous road to go down," said Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol U.K., the independent producer of such shows as "Big Brother" for Channel 4 and "Fame Academy" for the BBC. "The government needs to appoint a really authoritative, politically independent media person" such as Patricia Hodgson, ex-head of the Independent Television Commission, or Bob Phillis, CEO of the Guardian Media Group.
Bazalgette thinks that there has been a "creeping politicization of the BBC" because the governors are trying to be both cheerleaders and regulators at the same time. "They are like Dr. Dolittle's push-me, pull-yous," Bazalgette said. "They want to face both ways at the same time, and in today's complex media business, that is not possible."
Not only is their role contradictory at times, but few of the governors are media professionals. This experience might have made a difference in a situation like the Hutton report, in which the "big mistake" was not the Iraq dossier story itself but the fact that the BBC did not investigate the government's complaints more fully at the time about the story aired by BBC radio reporter Andrew Gilligan, Bazalgette said.
The wide-ranging backgrounds of the governors — one is a former ballet dancer, while another is a specialist in education — also makes it difficult for them to be a competent watchdog, Bazalgette said. "The system needs to be reformed."
Some BBC critics — like David Cox, former ITV editor of news and current affairs — say that Hutton has underlined the need for a "root and branch" review of the BBC, not only of its governors but also of what the BBC is meant to achieve in a broadcasting landscape that is vastly different from when the BBC began airing its first programs 82 years ago.
This also is the government's view. Culture Minister Tessa Jowell, who will oversee the charter review, has said that "everything will be discussed" during the review, including the scope of the BBC's activities, its funding through the mandatory TV license fee and how the public broadcasting corporation is governed.
The Hutton affair put a big question mark over the BBC's core values of integrity and trustworthiness that has taken a toll on morale at the BBC. There have been protests by BBC staff who feel that the board of governors was too quick to accept the resignations of Davies and Dyke and that the unreserved apology to the government for the Gilligan report only moments after Dyke was ousted Jan. 29 was a sign of buckling to government pressure rather than of thoughtful stewardship of the BBC.
The question of how BBC journalism will look post-Hutton has been a focus of much debate in the press, in political circles and on newsroom floors across the United Kingdom. BBC acting director general Mark Byford told a radio program last week that the BBC should not be in the business of competing with newspapers to break exclusive stories, a statement that seems to usher in an era of more cautionary journalism.
But Stewart Purvis, former head of ITN, the BBC's biggest news competitor in the United Kingdom, said that a middle road should be found between "lying low and picking fights" and that this is the challenge for Byford and all BBC editors. "It would be a sad, sad day if proper journalistic activities came adrift because of carelessness on the 'Today' program," where Gilligan's fateful May 29 report on the Iraq dossier first aired, Purvis said.