Bruce Anderson: Jeremy Paxman is the man to revive the BBC
The Irish often find the right words. A few years ago, after a largely-forgotten political scandal, someone described the whole affair as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. That was quickly abbreviated to Gubu. Last week, the BBC became the Gubu broadcasting corporation. It is all a little unfair on George Entwistle, who had only been in post for 54 days, and who departed with dignity. Nothing in his career became him like the leaving of it. But after the John Humphrys interview, there was no alternative. The DG had been interviewed live, and was now dead.
On the one hand, there is something admirable about a broadcasting company which allows one of its presenters to destroy its chief executive. On the other hand, no organisation of any kind can survive for long without a clear line of information and command. Last Christmas, one bit of the BBC was making a programme describing Jimmy Savile as a strong candidate for sainthood. Another branch was ready to expose him as a child molester. How was this possible? A friend of mine who used to work for the BBC explained why. The different directorates do not resemble the wings of a coherent corporate structure. They are more like early mediaeval baronies, used to running their own affairs, jealous of one another and reluctant to acknowledge anything but the most nominal central authority. If knowledge is power, why share it?
This is related to another of the BBC's basic weaknesses: an insufferable complacency, the only surviving element of the Reithian heritage. Try and tell anyone senior from the Beeb that it has lost its way, that it is no longer producing nearly enough serious programmes, that it is offering hardly anything which is not available from the commercial sector; that on present performance, there is no justification for the Licence Fee - and the response will be condescending incomprehension. The hierarchy often justifies the banality of most of the output by the need to reach out to new audiences. But how dare an organisation talk about outreach, after making such an almighty cock-up of the Royal river pageant, because it simply could not understand the British people's devotion to the Monarchy? The BBC needs an administrative revolution, and an intellectual one.
There is an obvious problem. There are far too many bosses and mini-bosses. George Entwistle's back office cost £4.6 million a year. What on earth is the point of that? What is wrong with two first-class secretaries, a chief of staff, and a bright young staff officer? Beyond that, people will just get in each others' way. Apparently, the BBC spends £80 million a year on communications and marketing. You could make a lot of programmes for that money. Is any of it doing any good? John Humphrys should be asked to interview the entire eighty millions' worth, to give them a chance to justify themselves.
In any good organisation, everybody is slightly overworked. People know that if they fail to stop the ball, it is off to the boundary for four runs. As a result, there is alertness, thus minimising mistakes. One suspects that the BBC bureaucracy is full of people enjoying the sunshine.
There is an argument for radical surgery. What about cutting back the BBC to the Home Service, the Third Programme, the World Service and one Television channel, plus some serious sport if it could be afforded? Would all that need more than a £50 licence fee, even including the sport?
All that is still just beyond the bounds of possibility, so there has to be a new Director-General, under the present arrangements. Not, emphatically, a new Chairman: Chris Patten is absolutely the best man for that job. It is true that he took time to get his bat down on the Savile affair. He may have grown to accustomed to the elaborate courtesies of greatness and goodery; long exposure to Brussels is not character-building. But he has one of the finest feline political intelligences of our time, as he has demonstrated over the past 72 hours. His eye is now in: the stroke-play is back to the old form.
As for the new DG, he (in this column, man covers woman) should possess three qualities. He should be able to make himself feared. He should grasp the important of taut administrative structures and spend his first days imposing them, while the fear factor is most potent. Thereafter, he should try to delegate administration to a Deputy DG whose soul is attuned to bureaucratic necessity and who can spot waste at a hundred yards. Apart from swift crisis management, when necessary, the new DG could then attune his soul to programme-making, the third vital quality. We want someone who never forgets that he is not only the Director-General. He is the Editor-in-Chief.
As well as pledging retrenchment and reform, we want a DG whose ambition is to delight, amuse, enthrall and provoke: to produce programmes which will justify the BBC's continued existence. There is an obvious candidate, who knows the Beeb well and who gives the impression that he would relish a new challenge: Jeremy Paxman. Come on, Jeremy: you have spent long enough exposing Ministers' limitations. Let us see what you can do.