IN MANY fields, for the new chairman of a major public corporation to be generally welcomed by the commentariat as a safe pair of hands should be reassuring for its stakeholders and customers. It would indicate the appointment of someone who could be trusted to do an important job well without making any serious mistakes, and who would not embark on a major upheaval.
The BBC, however, is an organisation not conducive to such an appointment. It is in serious trouble, arguably even in crisis. Nearly two-thirds of its captive paying customers are dissatisfied, not only with the coercive way it funds itself, but also with how it spends the money it extracts from them. No fewer than half of them say it neither represents their values nor observes the impartiality required by the Charter which bestows such privileged status on it.
For all his manifest qualities, BBC chairman designate Richard Sharp appears unlikely, judging by the overall tone of press comment on the news of his appointment, to favour the radical, even revolutionary, approach to reforming the Corporation that its deep-rooted structural malaise demands.
That ‘senior BBC figures expressed relief’ at the appointment, interpreting it as evidence of Government intent ‘to pursue a policy of reform rather than revolution‘ speaks volumes. That Sharp is reportedly seen essentially as ‘bipartisan rather than a culture warrior’, and is described by his ‘allies’ (may we be permitted to know who they are?) as likely to be ‘a tough friend’ of the BBC, gives little confidence that the behemoth is seriously threatened by the kind of institutional shake-up which its captive funders clearly believe it needs.
That the BBC’s senior executives apparently ‘feared the appointment of an arch critic such as Lord (Charles) Moore’, and Sharp’s own reported opinion that ‘the BBC is at the heart of British cultural life’, do not presage a complacency-upending zeal. The comment attributed to those ‘friends’ that he was ‘unlikely to push for a radical overhaul of the broadcaster‘ does not suggest an imminent change of focus away from the preservation of producer interest and towards customer satisfaction.
If all these indications are right, the blame for what looks likely to become a total failure to call to account the partisan, bloated, smug, contemptuous-of-its-audience BBC will lie not with Sharp himself, but with the decision-takers on his appointment as BBC chairman. And that is the risk-averse, pusillanimous, allegedly ‘Conservative’ government led by the politically invertebrate, pledge-reversing, all-bluff-and-bluster Boris Johnson.
It was only just over a year ago that Johnson rode into No 10 Downing Street, mainly on the back of his promise finally to deliver the Brexit which the British people had voted for a full three and a half years before (and how quickly the wheels are already starting to come off that) but partly on the back of his hints about abolishing the illiberal BBC’ licence-fee’ or at the very least decriminalising non-payment of it. For a time, on his instruction, ministers even boycotted the BBC’s political coverage because of its bias.
How distant that now seems. The signals indicating the government’s abandonment of its pledge and its eventual capitulation have been discernible for the last six months or so, not least in Johnson’s and his ineffectual Media and ‘Culture’ Minister Oliver Dowden’s hesitancy and equivocation in condemning the BBC’s increasing doubling-down on the contempt it clearly feels for its audiences.
Confirmation duly arrived just before Christmas when, conveniently amid the furore over whether we would be allowed to celebrate it at all, Johnson was revealed to be ditching plans even to decriminalise non-payment of the ‘licence-fee’, never mind consider outright abolition.
That was followed by a volte-face remarkable even by the standards we have come to expect from Johnson when, deploying his usual compulsive hyperbole, he entrusted to the ‘fantastic’BBC responsibility for providing online lessons to children who are being denied their education mainly because of his own reluctance to take on the militant teaching unions obstructing the re-opening of schools and resumption of classroom teaching.
In little more than a year, therefore, he has gone from ordering a ministerial boycott of the BBC because of its political bias to handing it a virtual monopoly on online teaching, despite half of Britons thinking it reflects their views and their values either fairly badly or very badly.
The government’s comments on Sharp’s appointment strengthen the impression of a backdown and its acceptance of modest change only. ‘Exactly the chair the BBC needs right now’, purred Dowden, going on to repeat the customary mantra of a BBC ‘central to British national life in the decades ahead’, while anticipating only ‘reforms to the BBC’, which hardly appear a threat.
Tellingly, nowhere in any of the political announcements or mainstream media coverage of Sharp’s appointment is there any recognition of the fundamental iniquity of a funding model reliant on an illiberal regressive tax, payable via coercion even by people who don’t wish to consume the product which it funds. So much for the ‘libertarian’ Boris Johnson who we keep being assured, with fast-diminishing credibility, really does exist.
In contrast to its overwhelmingly favourable, even fawning, reception, the most apposite comment on Sharp’s appointment perhaps comes from former BBC journalist and author of ‘The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda’, Robin Aitken. The salient point of his trenchant critique of the appointment is worth quoting in full:
‘In choosing Mr Sharp, a walking caricature of the Establishment, the Johnson government is signalling that it’s opting for a quiet life rather than conflict with the BBC.’
It is no criticism of Sharp’s qualifications and suitability for the role to say that he appears to be a first-class choice – for the next-but-one chairman of the BBC. He would be an ideal candidate to steady the ship and settle it on its new course, after the difficult passage through the rough, rock-strewn seas that it absolutely must complete if it’s ever to emerge into the calmer waters of, firstly, a new funding model acceptable to its customers, and secondly, the trust by a majority of the public, in both its reflection of their values and its scrupulous adherence to impartiality, substantially restored.
To command and navigate the lumbering BBC vessel successfully though that tricky passage requires something other than a gradualist or consensualist with insider connections to the government machine. It needs a radical, sceptical outsider, a disrupter, an unbeliever in the BBC’s specious claim to a ‘unique and special position in our national life’, unafraid to challenge and overcome innate resistance to change among its self-referential senior executives and presenters.
The BBC behemoth needs a chairman committed to demolishing its institutional groupthink; one willing to make life thoroughly uncomfortable for its senior cadres, to force on it and them the changes necessary to transform it into a provider of product satisfaction and value-for-money to voluntary customers, not a pillar of the Left-‘liberal’ elite-establishment exploiting its privileged position and guaranteed revenue to promote assiduously an ideological agenda unwelcome to most of its captive funders.
It isn’t going to get one. Thanks solely to the shameful timidity and duplicity of Johnson and his flaccid government, the BBC’s boat is not about to be rocked.