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
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.