Lord (Chris) Patten has been, and will continue to be, the most excellent Chancellor of Oxford University, held in affection by all. He is there when needed, his speeches are always a delight and apt for the occasion, and his attentions are directed to all colleges equally (unlike his predecessor Lord (Roy) Jenkins, who made it quite clear that very few colleges, and certainly no former women’s colleges, could be regarded in the same light as Balliol.) So I am very sorry indeed to learn that Lord Patten has been unwell and, along with all those who have worked with him, wish him a speedy return to good health. He has had to take off the mantle of chairmanship of the BBC, and the papers are rife with speculation about his possible successor.
I have read that the government would like to see a woman in the role. I am against quotas and affirmative discrimination, but I support the notion in this case. Women generally are not nearly as prone to squandering money on large pay offs and salaries, and on the whole do not determine these matters on macho lines. As a governor I protested to the then chairman about the size of, and the need for, bonuses for senior staff who, after all, were already well paid and not there to make a profit: he told me that as I was an academic (cue curl of the lip) I was so badly paid that I could not understand money. A new chairman who comes from a profession or background where one has to be more parsimonious would be welcome. Maybe someone from the charity or not-for-profit sectors. Please no bankers or investors to whom £m are trifling sums! So value for money will be the watchword of the new chair. I was also right about the superfluity of BBC3, which I thought should have been sacrificed years ago.
Will a new chair be expected to reform the governance of the BBC? We have lived through that. Even before the Gilligan affair, the Governors were distancing themselves from the executive, and even from Broadcasting House, and went off to Marylebone High St. That distance I think was too far, for it was all too easy to lose touch with what the executives were doing and thinking every day and, on balance, we governors (now trustees, but there is no difference) were better informed when we were closer to the executive. Maybe one board containing executives and non-executives is the answer. Yet the possible styles of governance seem to me to be less determinative than the personalities on board.
Whoever is the new chairman needs to love, watch and listen to the BBC and understand its profound influence on our lifelong education, entertainment and information. No matter how much the future is digital, watching and listening figures have held up, and for trustworthy informed sourcing there is as yet nothing better. The new chair must understand IT and digital developments, in order to keep abreast and to avoid more losses on over-ambitious data projects. Public service is the ethos, and transparency, no more resisting FOI and holding back documents that will tell us all where our licence fee money is going.
For years I have found the BBC complaints system unsatisfactory: the number that succeed is so tiny that one suspects resistance to challenge and overconfidence. The BBC ought to have an outside ombudsman to settle complaints, rather than leaving it to insiders, whose decisions are bound to seem less independent than they ought to be. In my 2012 Gresham lecture on this topic I discussed the issue – http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-bbc-defending-the-public-interest.
The biggest job confronting the new chair will be renewal of the Charter in 2016, already underway. As I have written in relation to press regulation, (http://lordsoftheblog.net/2013/10/11/cross-party-cabal/) a Royal Charter is a curious way of making law, in many ways less democratic and accountable than an Act of Parliament, and vulnerable to being a stitch up between Ministers. It is however more flexible and is renewed every 10 years in order to reflect the current developments in media and the needs of the BBC and its public. The future of the licence fee must be a pressing issue, given that many viewers and listeners are on line rather than in front of a box, and there are claims for top-slicing to fund other worthy ventures.
A multitasking chair navigating from Salford to W1A, from analogue to digital, from world service to local – a few tears along the way – it takes a woman!