Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

BBC Trust and HSBC: gripping drama

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast March 11, 2015

BBC Trust chairman Rona Fairhead found herself in the starring role of the latest primetime Beeb drama when she was told to resign earlier this week by head of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge.

Rona Fairhead

The plot goes like this: as a non-executive director of embattled HSBC, Fairhead must have known about the bank’s tax evasion practices; if she didn’t, she must have been “either naïve or totally incompetent”, said Hodge.

Fairhead’s claim that there were several layers between her role and any wrongdoing didn’t wash.

Hodge said that Fairhead was no longer trustworthy (so to speak): “You should consider your position and, if not, the government should sack you.”

So just as the BBC Trust finds a boss who seems to understand that defending the BBC status quo is not the best way forward, she falls under a bus with a big HSBC logo on it.

I heard Fairhead’s talk about the future of the BBC at the Oxford Media Convention last week. She was impressive, not least in her political canniness: as the battle over the BBC charter review grinds into gear, she underlined the BBC’s need to modernise its structure and regulation, maintaining what it does best while defending its independence.

Fairhead seems to grasp that the corporation’s future is not about fighting for the old licence fee and a structure where the Trust is supposed to be both regulator and champion. The TV world is changing, and so must the BBC.

This means both handing the BBC’s regulatory oversight to a “bespoke regulator” that is separate from the BBC, and changing how the BBC Executive functions.

It should be less like a state-owned utility and more like a plc board, with a good balance of nonexecutive directors and a dedicated chairman.

This “modernisation”, as Fairhead called it, is key to getting rid of the “faultline in blurred accountabilities between the Trust and BBC management”.

Her speech was strategic, sensible and even achievable.

She remarked on her background before her speech even began, which gave some insight into how she thinks. In addition to her jobs at the Financial Times Group, PepsiCo and HSBC, she is a licenced pilot.

She said the most important thing to keep in mind to stay aloft and on course when flying a plane is to maintain your aircraft control. A pretty good metaphor for her BBC Trust job.

The Beeb is under pressure. When ITV chief executive Adam Crozier complains that his audiences are down largely because the BBC is splashing the cash on dramas like Poldark (and scheduling it against ITV’s Mr Selfridge to boot) to help win the licence fee argument, there’s little room for error.

Can Fairhead navigate the turbulence from her HSBC role to emerge as Trust-worthy? Whether her role is at the end or only the beginning of this BBC drama is still being scripted.

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