Last week’s news that Chris Patten has resigned from his position as chair of the BBC Trust due to ill-health has of course prompted a flurry of commentary. As speculations are made regarding names of potential successors who may perhaps be on the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid’s list, it is notable that some commentators are calling for the opportunity to be used to ‘reboot’ the BBC Trust and return it to its intended role.
Writing in the Observer, Peter Preston has much to say about the process itself.
“The system of choosing a trust chair – supposed sacred guardian of BBC independence and royal chartered freedom – is ropey, going on risible. Hacked Off’s energetic Evan Harris would turn even more apoplectic if newspapers chose their own regulator that way. (What? An “open process” that submits names to Javid, who can add one of his own before sending an either/or choice to the PM, with select committee vetting thrown in: meddling fingers at every turn producing ideologically acceptable appointees for whoever happens to be in Downing Street at the time?). “
He goes on:
“The trust remains for the moment. Then let it be an actual regulator, not a part-time cheerleader. Keep retired politicians out of it. Indeed, ban political finagling completely. Make sure the trust doesn’t waddle between corporate approval and stern remonstration month after month. A new breed of BBC executive directors – such as the aforementioned Stringer – already has the expertise to hold the DG to account. The chair of the trust is not the “head of the BBC”. He or she shouldn’t be rallying to the flag every time the organisation gets stick. The next trust leader must be a regulator first and last – not the difficult mix of role-playing as heretofore.”
In the Sunday Times we find similar sentiment.
“Senior government sources say the prime minister is determined to appoint a woman as head of the BBC Trust to act as a regulator of the corporation’s activities following the Jimmy Savile affair.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, the communications minister Ed Vaizey said the new chairman should behave as a watchdog rather than a “cheerleader”.
In a coded attack on the outgoing head Lord Patten, who is standing down because of ill health, senior figures said his successor must have reform of the Trust as “one of the first things in their in-box”. […]
Vaizey said the new boss would be expected to behave as a regulator and to ensure that the BBC is accountable. He added that a background working as a watchdog would be an advantage.
“The trust is meant to be an arm’s-length regulator so it’s important that … one of the qualities would be regulatory. I think that is a key skill. It’s a regulatory role,” he said.
The minister added: “The BBC Trust was set up by the last government [to perform] an Ofcom role with the BBC, not trying to be cheerleader of the BBC. That is important. The BBC Trust needs to remind people that its role is more of a regulator.” […]
A senior Whitehall source said Cameron also wants to end the “Janus-faced” role of the BBC Trust head: “The fact is that the BBC Trust has never really worked and the Savile affair exposed that.
“The chairman was out defending the BBC but was also supposed to be the one investigating the BBC’s failures.
“You can’t be both a regulator and a cheerleader. Whoever takes over will have to realise that is one of the first things in their in-box. The Trust has failed.” “
The BBC Trust, which came into being under the Royal Charter of January 1st 2007, replaced the old Board of Governors. The Trust’s website defines its role thus:
“The BBC exists to serve the public, and its mission is to inform, educate and entertain. The BBC Trust is the governing body of the BBC, and we make sure the BBC delivers that mission. […]
Our job is to get the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers.
We set the strategic objectives for the BBC. We have challenged the BBC to:
- increase the distinctiveness and quality of output;
- improve the value for money provided to licence fee payers;
- set new standards of openness and transparency; and do more to serve all audiences.
We issue a service licence to every BBC service stating what we expect it to deliver and how much it can spend. We set the BBC’s editorial guidelines and protect the BBC’s independence. We monitor performance to ensure that the BBC provides value for money while staying true to its public purposes.”
So what do readers think? Is it time for the role of the BBC Trust to be reconsidered in general? Should its new chair make getting back to the basics of its regulatory role a priority and should he or she come from within the media world or from a different background? And whilst David Cameron may think that it is time to give the job to a woman, who would you like to see as a candidate for the post?