Mallory Wober on Steering the BBC 2007 and Onwards

Chair, or Head, of Trust – Steering the BBC, 2007 and Onwards

David Puttnam has written (The Spectator, 3 February 2007, pp 20-21) that “the director-general (of the BBC) … also chairs the executive board …”; Puttnam is thus unlikely to have written the headline to his article (“Memo To The New BBC Chair…”) because he reveals that he knows that the BBC already has a chairman – it is Mark Thompson the current director general.

David Puttnam goes on to say that he will not stand for the new job at the head of the Trust set up over the BBC. This new job has commonly been referred to as Chairman of the BBC – but that malpractice makes two errors. First, as we have seen, the BBC already has a Chairman. Second, the person leading the Trust will not be Chairman of the BBC. Puttnam also writes of “the separation of powers between the Trust and the executive”; I find this welcome as I have urged for several years that the (ex) Governors should be separated from the BBC; evidently the acting Chair of the Trust has said that “the Trust is sovereign”. The Trust has to have a compelling responsibility over the BBC, while it also has to “maintain its independence from government by being prepared to stand up in defence of the broad public interest (and not just that of the Corporation) …” (Puttnam).

Two concepts will lie at the heart of the way the BBC must now be directed. When the new licence settlement was announced Mark Thompson said the money was not enough, but he assured everyone, using the first of these two necessary concepts, that standards of quality would be maintained. This raises the question of how quality may be defined, assessed, perceived, measured, or delivered. Much has been written on this question (notably in the early 1990s, and summarised by scholars associated with Japan’s Public Broadcaster the NHK). There is no single touchstone by which it can be said that ‘quality’ is present or absent; it remains for subjective judgement to decide how much quality inheres in a product; and it is not unequivocally realised who should make such judgements. One judgemental ‘community’ is that of programme makers; an example of how this is done in the Film Industry is the “Academy” which decides on Oscar winners. Unfortunately, an academician Brian Forbes has also recently written in the Spectator that the process is open to corruption. Another judgemental community is that of ‘third party critics’ – such as those who write in the papers, about programmes. This ‘community’ has not been systematically put to the tests (if such can be devised) of consistency and validity. Finally, there are two signs of ‘feedback from the consumers’ – one the size of the audience (and other measures of behaviour such as loyalty); and the other, representatively polled evaluations of – quality. There are good reasons why the behavioural measures should not be used as signs of quality – at least, those of crude audience size; and though the opinions of the audience are difficult and expensive to measure, they should be the preferred index.

David Puttnam supplies the second of the concepts lying at the heart of how one may assay the role and performance of the BBC. He refers to “… the concept of public value … as a means of assessing its impact on the individual, the community, the nation and indeed the wider world”. The crucial term here is “impact”. This entails that someone has to measure (this has always been controversial) impact, or influence, or effect. Does what the BBC does stabilise or destabilise individuals and or culture and or society? Does the output bring about happiness or misery, good behaviour or bad – in terms of how people regard themselves, or others? If there is a sufficiently well endowed and focused academic corps outside the broadcasting institutions it might deliver assessments of this sort; but it can be argued that the academic body is inefficiently applied to the task – and it will surely fall to the Trust both to collect and use both the available evidence, and to encourage and help define its collection.

To help it become clear to the Public and to the Academic community and indeed to the Trust itself, that the Trust is independent both of the BBC and of the Government, it will greatly help if its leader hits upon and chooses a label which is not Chairman (as it will inevitably then be misinterpreted as being – of the BBC). One suggestion is that the leader might call him or herself simply Head of the Trust over the BBC. Puttnam has written that “the present relationship between our licensed broadcasters and the legislature is typified by suspicion, misunderstanding, and what appears at times to be a quite staggering degree of ignorance, each of the other …” This matter of identifying the Head of the Trust thus requires a deft, a firm and a swift solution, before the relevant observers (press, politicians) establish and harden their perceptions in old fashioned terms.

The new BBC Trust Website is good in many ways but improvements should include:
*the website should stand alone and not be an embedded subset within the BBC’s site
*complaints advice should be explained as an independent procedure and not something that one resorts to “if complaints to the BBC are not satisfactorily addressed…”
*it should be made clear where the Trust gets its finance, which it is hoped is not as a subset within the BBC’s overall budget, administered by the BBC.

I say three things in this commentary:

the new head of Trust should emerge under a new title, which demonstrates
the new role as independent both of the BBC and of the Government

the Trust as a body will have to find a way or ways of assessing quality
of output

the Trust as a body will have to find ways of assessing impact, or effects
of the output.

It is not said above, but the results of these assessments of quality and or of impact or effects, should be made public in full.

J.M.Wober
February 2007

6 thoughts on “Mallory Wober on Steering the BBC 2007 and Onwards

  1. I take the liberty of addressing not only my friend Mallory but also his other friends, to whom he has addressed his well-argued remarks on the Trust ‘over the BBC’ that he advocates. I have a few comments that may be useful, but need someone wiser and more skilful than I to sharpen or ditch!

    First, if anything can be done to prevent the BBC government, led by the dg, from creating a Trust in the image of the Governors, surely it will need a larger and noisier movement than this. Can one of you Friends of Mallory launch a blog to air some of these issues and invite energy and noise into the arena? The Beeb has over 80 years of managing itself to its own satisfaction, and knows very well how to influence politicians, the rest of the press, and public opinion, when it wants to. Against this mighty force, a call for the Trust to be truly independent and ‘over the BBC’ must sound like the squeak of a mouse to elephantine Thompson and his herd? Can we encourage others to shout it (and to broaden and deepen the message)? Surely we need bloggers, blogs and press comment on the blogging?

    Secondly, the quote from DP about the staggering ignorance of government abt the BBC and vice versa reminds me that there is another place in which you find even more staggering ignorance of the BBC, namely everywhere else. Try to describe the BBC’s resources, staffing levels, claims of ‘responsibilities’, etc etc in any other part of the world, and as the image builds, the disbelief is quite extraordinary. Perhaps one can take advantage of this in trying to argue for the true independence of the Trust and its role ‘over ‘ (you are joking,Mallory?) the BBC?

    Finally, as ideas like buses tend to come in threes, let no-one underestimate the determination and ingenuity of the Beeb. The Trust may not be high on the agenda of many senior figures, but everyone will be alert to the remote but real ‘danger’ that the Trust could end up doing the job it was supposed to do. Antennae and image-enhancing imagery will already be in place to identify potential Trustees and to ensure that ’sound’ and ‘unsound’ candidiates are id’d and slilfully boosted or dumped. So the the precise role of the Trust and its precise relationship to the BBC is all the more important – it is probably the only aspect of the new dispensation that really, really matters.

    In other words, Mallory, you are right on target with your purpose, but the message will need to be as eloquent and as subtle and as determined as the counter-messages of Auntie. A Very Tall Order!

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  2. I can’t remember if I have thanked you for this. It is very thoughtful and makes some very good points.
    Go for it Mallory. Very interesting letter.
    That’s an excellent statement, Mallory. I hope it reaches the right people.

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  3. I can only laud Robin Moss’ response to your BBC Trust letter. Have you had any further thoughts on what you might do and how? Or did you send this into the ether in the hope others might take up the cudgels?

    One of the little appreciated facts relating to the BBC is its journalist training programme which effectively gives it incredible ‘power and influence’ around the world with many of the international broadcasting systems operating with BBC-trained staff. I don’t know if it is still run by Kathy Flower (who lives at Arundel) but she was certainly not happy with the BBC ‘within’.

    I’m not at all sure our present government is interested in more than being appropriately ‘cribbed’ when it comes to making changes; it seems to be honed entirely upon appearances, i.e. it can support its own existence so long as it can prove it has instituted sufficient percentage of changes. (As when this week it announced the withdrawal of a
    percentage of troops from Iraq within a defined time limit and the media greeted this with great hoo-hah, failing, seemingly, to register that an almost directly correlated number of British troops are to be sent into Afghanistan in the same time frame.) Okay, is the BBC merely a tool of the British government or a tool of the British people? – the two are blatantly not synonymous. As a media leader, should it not be more closely aligned to an independent ‘think-tank’, balancing its ‘duty’ and/or performance between government and people?

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  4. ‘I wish that, in addition to and totally independent from the BBC, there was another provider of a national Radio channel. Or I should qualify that by adding that I am talking about a ‘Talk’ station. A rival Radio 4 is probably what I mean.

    ‘Classic FM’ properly cooked Radio 3’s goose for it. Suddenly Radio 3 had a rival when I’m sure the BBC mind was that Classical music was for them and them alone. What’s more, Classic FM’s reading of the public taste buds was infinitely more accurately tuned than ever the BBC’s was. Now we need a rival to Radio 4.

    To my mind the way past the arrogance of the BBC is not achieved by redefining the role of the Trust, it’s all far too late for that anyway, it’s by challenging them and beating them on the very ‘killing ground’ where they show the most arrogance.

    ‘The Voice of the Nation has a Rival.’ That’s my dream. Then I may have to forego the pleasure of switching the bugger off and simply replace him or her with a different voice.

    This may all seem a bit low level stuff for you and your friends, but there it is, that’s the best I can do.

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  5. Letter to the editor of the Times on 9 April 2007

    Sir,

    Chairman of The Trust – and The Seat of his Authority

    Web users in the last couple of days could find an announcement that “the BBC appoints new chairman”, followed by the comment “Sir Michael Lyons, a former market trader, has been named the new chairman of the BBC”.
    These two claims are not just wrong in two important matters – Sir Michael can not have been appointed by the BBC, nor is he the ‘Chairman of the BBC’ – they imply in these two indelicacies that the BBC thinks it is to control the Trust. This is not why the Trust has been set up outside the BBC, nor is the implication acceptable to the informed public by whom Sir Michael Lyons should be welcomed, and to whom he is responsible. On our behalf he should first make it clear that he and the Trust he chairs for us will examine what they consider it necessary to be examined, and report openly on their findings and judgements to the Public and the DCMS.

    Yours sincerely,

    J.M.Wober PhD

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