I have a love-hate relationship with the BBC.
Love its shows. Whether it’s Attenborough, Match of the Day, Night Manager or Newsnight on TV and Danny Baker on Radio 5 Live. And it’s mostly impartial politically.
But hate its arrogance and waste. When making announcements at several previous employers, I was called sometimes by up to five BBC journalists asking exactly the same question within a few minutes of each other. Then there was the presumption that its pre-eminent status would always demand the first interview. I took these as symptoms of wider profligacy and self-importance. (And that was not just me swallowing the Sky propaganda for which I was responsible for a few years).
So, at first glance, today’s government proposals on the BBC go some way to remedy this.
There’s to be a much tighter Whitehall rein than before with six people appointed by government to a new Board of twelve or more people to steer overall editorial direction. Ofcom, my old employer, gets to regulate the Corporation. The National Audit Office is handed the accounting role.
With a new mission “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high‐quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain”, over 60% of its shows are to be put out to tender so its in-house creatives are kept on their toes.
But the debate will centre not on which luvvies’ feathers have been ruffled by this but on editorial independence free from government interference.
Sceptics will ask, at its crudest, will so many government appointees really allow probing factual and news programmes which might embarrass the very government which appointed them?
Can pioneering shows like Panorama and Horizon feel confident they can keep exposing failings of public policy that make Ministers look shifty and uncomfortable?
No government would be foolish enough to simply appoint a raft of its own Party stooges onto such a Board to achieve this. Even in the bygone days of BBC Governors, Tories always appointed a mainstream trusty Labourite and Labour put a housetrained Conservative on the broadcaster’s ruling body.
So now the Government has to prove that it wants independence by appointing people beyond its own partisan ranks with a record of understanding the rapidly shifting broadcast and digital landscape combined with an awareness of business, regulation and reputation.
Like for Channel 4, the government could even delegate the appointment role to Ofcom. It now regards the body as “the widely respected and experienced media and telecommunications regulator” when, in opposition, Mr Cameron threatened “With a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist.”
Only with genuine independents with a diverse range of backgrounds and skills will it have the strict rules in place to ensure the Beeb keeps being trusted and stays relevant.