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David Keighley: A privileged, blinkered, outmoded monopoly. The new BBC chairman must sort it out


Speculation is continuing about who will become the new BBC chairman in succession to Lord Patten. It’s reported that Lord Coe – said to be the favourite of David Cameron – has pulled out of the selection process, as has Marjorie Scardino, the tough-talking former head of the Pearson group.

The new front-runner is said by The Guardian – who because it is the BBC house organ, tends to know these things – to be existing trustee Nick Prettejohn. Who?

Actually, he’s a former adviser to George Osborne on banking regulation who was recently appointed to be chairman of the Scottish Widows investment and pensions company.

But excuse me. I have no doubt he’s capable in his own field, but it seems astonishing that he is even in the frame.

The BBC Charter is up for renewal in 2017, and the new chairman will thus be in charge of probably the most crucial negotiations in the Corporation’s history.

Should not the chairman therefore be someone who is genuinely knowledgeable about broadcasting? Not only that, someone who can use that knowledge to think radically, robustly and ruthlessly about the Corporation’s future?

The reality is that the BBC needs major surgical reform to recognise the continuing massive flux in how people use media.

The Corporation’s structure and its licence-fee financing were set up at a time when initially radio and then television were a scare resource because of the massive expense and limited availability in distributing broadcast signals.

Maggie Thatcher set out to reform it but buckled; Labour, despite the skirmish over Iraq coverage, adored its core liberal values and ensured that the licence-fee was sacrosanct at the last Charter renewal.

The enforced licence fee of £3.5bn a year – which criminalises thousands of the poorest in our society every year and clogs up our magistrates’ courts – is a beached whale of a regressive tax that should be axed and replaced with subscription.

Such massive sums of guaranteed income have proved to be seriously corrupting, in that the narrow media elite who work for the Corporation and are its trustees have a liberal-left mindset. The vast majority of the programmes they have been producing for years are dominated by that outlook.

Coverage of issues such as climate change, immigration, drug abuse and the EU are systematically biased – and because the Corporation is its own judge and jury on complaints, the current regime is incapable of seeing that this is the case.

I recently attended a meeting as part of a delegation of eurosceptics with some very senior BBC news executives about the coverage of the May European elections. Their approach from the outset to the detailed research before them was that it was wrong – even though they had not read it. They told us they knew for certain because figures like Jamie Angus, the editor of the Today programme, was ‘a good guy’ who knew what he was doing.

Such breathtaking arrogance and stone-walling is clear evidence of just how corrupting the current licence-fee system has become. The BBC is a privileged, blinkered monopoly as outmoded in modern Britain as the old British Telecom nationalised company that insisted the only telephones you could buy were the black, green, red or ivory same-model ones they told you could buy.

One note of optimism is that new Culture Secretary Sajid Javid is said to be determined to end the licence fee and introduce genuine change.

That doesn’t mean the end of public service broadcasting. It means the replacement of an out-of-control dinosaur by a new mean and lean high-minded broadcasting service that has to fight for every penny of its income by being genuinely in tune with what audiences want, and by reflecting the values of British tradition, culture and society.

But if the main candidate for the BBC’s top job is George Osborne’s former adviser on financial regulation, I fear a golden opportunity may be lost.

Another strand of opinion reflected in The Guardian is that David Cameron is determined the new chairman should be female. That triggers loud warning bells, because the current acting chairman is Diana Coyle, who, as I have previously noted on TCW, is the ultimate leftist quango queen. If it is a woman, let’s hope it’s someone appointed genuinely on merit.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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