The Conservative party’s rolling turmoil is guillotining reputations at a pace. Gavin Williamson, Dominic Raab and Richard Sharp have all gone but we still have the results of the privileges committee and two resignation honours lists still to come. More heads will roll.
As public attention looks for the next head in the basket, it is easy to forget that some of these casualties have left vacancies behind which have still not been filled.
The plummiest and probably most important and challenging of these appointments is the chairmanship of the BBC. Richard Sharp will leave the job at the end of June, prematurely, having been defiled by the noxious pitch of association with Boris Johnson.
Here on Reaction I am going to name two people who I consider to be excellent candidates for BBC chair. My nominations are entirely freelance, unsolicited and almost certainly unwelcome. I believe they both have talents and experience needed for the job, unlike the names which have so far been bandied about. That said I have come across most of the people I will mention here, and respect almost all of them.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I am a professional broadcaster, but my career has not been built at the Corporation. I have often been a critic of its market dominance. But as media outlets fragment and multiply, and as our culture polarises I have increasingly recognising the value of the BBC as the “gold standard” (Ken Livingstone’s words)for the independent, non-commercial, non-partisan, provision of factual and entertainment content. If it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be replaced now. It is vital that the right person is appointed to oversee and defend the BBC into the future.
Let us begin with who or what the BBC chairman should not be.
David Dimbleby has ruled himself out and said that the chair should not be appointed by an independent quango rather than politically by the Prime Minister of the day. I disagree with the second point and Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary has ruled it out.
If a democratic nation is going to have a head of government, he or she should have some patronage over public appointments, with in guardrails policed by independent scrutiny committees. These powers should not be thrown out precipitously just because the last two Prime Ministers abused them, erroneously taking their lead from the misbehaviour of the Trumpian Republican Party in the US.
Prime Ministers from Thatcher to May managed to choose people they felt comfortable with, while both sides respected their independence from each other. I would not impugn the records of the most politically connected chairs such as Marmaduke Hussey, Gavyn Davies, Chris Patten, Michael Grade and Richard Ryder. Each put the BBC first, irrespective of their previous ties.
As the formal enquiries into the Sharp affair have pointed out Johnson and his ministers trashed the appointments process. They made their preferences public before the interview process had even begun and stipulated that the chairman should sort out the BBC. In private they corrupted it by promoting and rewarding cronies.
Sunak is on a self-declared mission to re-establish integrity and accountability in government. He should forego the temptations of patronage and should take this opportunity to clear the polluted air. For that reason – and until public confidence is restored, the Prime Minister should not appoint anyone to chair the BBC who has been engaged in significant party-political activity – whether left, right or Floella Benjamin.
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That would knock out the amiable Tina Stowell, who is currently being touted by some Conservatives. A former aide of Tory leader William Hague, Baroness Stowell of Beeston rose to be Conservative leader of the Lords, and chair of the charity commission. She has already set out her stall declaring that there are “people who vote conservative… who feel that the BBC at the moment is not representing them in the way that they feel they deserve it to do”
Whether as campaigners, office holders or donors, banning partisans would also take out many of those championed by what Liz Truss derided as the “Anti-Growth Coalition” including George Osborne and James Purnell as well as JK Rowling, Joan Bakewell, Tessa Blackstone, Frances O’Grady, and Nicky Morgan.
The job should not go to a journalist either. Journalists lack the cool-headed objectivity necessary for the chair of the BBC, which is in part one of the biggest news organisations in the world. At an otherwise impressive and bien-pensant “Truth Tellers” summit this week, celebrating investigative journalism and the late Harry Evans, I was disgusted when a conference hall full of veteran and wannabe journalists erupted into spontaneous applause when a speaker looked forward to “Piers Morgan in handcuffs”. No thanks.
Journalists are already well-represented in the executives of the BBC. I am against them taking up non-executive seats on the board as well. The former journalist Robbie Gibb, a Conservative appointee, has been repeatedly accused of interfering in the BBC’s editorial coverage, including in the new book by the respected producer Rob Burley.
What with Rishi Sunak, Richard Sharp and Gavyn Davies it would be best not to have another plutocrat associated with Goldman Sachs either. Come to that, I would eliminate all fund managers and bankers as candidates for the chair. Thanks to the licence payers the BBC does not need their cash raising abilities. Bad luck current members of the Board, Damon Buffini and Shumeet Banerji!
I first met Richard Sharp when he occupied next door rooms at Christ Church, Oxford. He is a kind and clever man. Social justice and the mood of the times should also exclude products of Oxbridge and public schools from the candidates list. They – we – and bankers are well enough represented across the establishment.
Next for the chop: professional “public servants” and over eager hunters for gongs.
And seasoned institutional bureaucrats. Sir Nicholas Serota, Dame Sharon White and Sir Peter Bazalgette should have their hands full anyway at the Arts Council, John Lewis and ITV.
Which brings me to my two nominations. Unlike any of the above, Tony Ball and Jimmy Wales, in different ways, have the qualities which I consider essential to be a good chair of the BBC in 2023. They are outsiders, not amateurs with international reputations. Both have been in charge of and run institutions. They are each self-made titans in the contemporary digital media universe, with experience as managers and board chairmen, used to dealing with employees, competitors, governments and regulators. Both keep their personal politics private although I suspect that not all their views fit within a standard liberal template.
Now in his sixties Tony Ball started as a 16-year-old trainee TV technician, subsequently talent-spotted by the likes of John Malone and Rupert Murdoch, to become Chief Executive of BSkyB and chairman of Kabel Deutschland.
Jimmy Wales, 56, is co-founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, and the chair emeritus of the Wikimedia foundation. In spite of being “not for profit” he is a tech pioneer who mixes with Silicon Valley billionaires on equal terms. Alabama born, Jimmy has been based in the UK for decades and holds British Citizenship.
Both men have given their time and expertise, pro bono, in the public interest in the past. Both have the steel and experience to deal promptly with the recurrent silliness, and confusion of “impartiality” with lack of judgement which mars much of BBC output.
I have teased each of them as friends that they would be good BBC Chairmen. I have not warned them about this article. They won’t thank me for it. Both have busy and fulfilling lives already and are not obviously tempted by the necessary all-consuming commitment to the BBC . That should make them more attractive for the post because they would only do the job because they felt they ought to as a public service.
They are not a double act. It would be either Jimmy or Tony – that would be the classiest shortlist yet. Each has what it will take to start digging the nation and the BBC out of the holes they are now in. Over to you, Prime Minister.
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