The Blog

Last Chance for the BBC Trust?

Is Rona Fairhead doomed to be the very last chair of the BBC Trust? The chair is a basket-case of a job in which you can please no one, achieve nothing and the chances are high that you'll end up wondering why you ever applied in the first place.

This week saw the first public speech by the new chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead. After eight years of intermittent testosterone and posturing, Mrs Fairhead is a welcome breath of fresh air. But is she doomed to be the very last chair of the BBC Trust?

I've said before that as bad jobs go, in my view, chairperson of the BBC Trust is up there with the worst of them. I think right now I'd almost rather be the finance minister of Greece, though I'd need a biker jacket first. I'd also consider the position of leader of the Lib Dems when that becomes available... but then perhaps not. But either way, the chair of the BBC Trust is a basket-case of a job in which you can please no one, achieve nothing and the chances are high that you'll end up wondering why you ever applied in the first place.

That said, I know exactly why Rona Fairhead applied and I know exactly why she got the post. She is very intelligent, very competent and very business-minded - she has every right to think she can make a difference and turn things around. In addition, she does not have a background in the BBC or in television or radio so, for me, she is the perfect person. If she can't do this job then frankly no one can. And there's the rub.

The BBC Trust is a flawed entity. It was set up to be both watchdog and cheerleader at the same time. How can it possibly do both effectively? It was designed in haste after the Hutton debacle and we've been repenting at leisure ever since. Yes, the BBC is different in many ways - it is special - but why do we persist with the idea that the best way for it to operate is like some old rural public school, closeted away from the harsh realities of life, accountable to no one in particular. Oh, sorry... accountable to the nebulous group known only as the 'licence payers' who have no choice but to pay and no power to effect any change. In my view, the only way forward for the BBC is to accept that it's operating in the 21st Century, axe the Trust or change its remit substantially and wake up to the reality that it needs to act like a business not a gentlemen's club.

But we are where we are. There is a BBC Trust and it's got a lot of big problems to solve. In her speech Rona Fairhead set out her stall and tackled one of the long-standing criticisms of the BBC Trust: "I hope I'm no one's idea of a cheerleader. I spent a lot of my working life competing hard against the BBC. I'm not someone to gloss over the BBC's faults, problems or challenges - I see it as part of my job to identify and pursue them." She also acknowledged that the BBC has a perception problem: "There remains a persistent refrain that the BBC is a difficult organisation to deal with: we've all heard the saying that partnership is something the BBC does to you rather than with you. It needs to become more agile - simpler to work in and to work with."

All well and good. But let's take a look at what the previous chairman, Lord Patten, said in 2011 at the same time in his own tenure: "Like any institution, the BBC comes in for its fair share of public criticism. [...]. But some of the criticism should be taken very seriously indeed. The fact that we are paid for by the public through the licence fee should make us sensitive to the care we take in spending that money. Waste, self-indulgence and inefficiency at the BBC are inexcusable as they are anywhere else in the public sector. Openness and transparency are the best custodians of responsible house-keeping, and the newspapers that spot our falls from grace are doing us a favour." So, in general terms, he said the same thing as Rona Fairhead. The BBC has problems and must change.

Then let's look at Sir Michael Lyons, the chairman before Lord Patten. What did he say at the start of his tenure in 2007? "For the BBC to be fit for purpose in this changing Britain, it has itself to change, and to change significantly. And that - possibly rather late in the day - is what the BBC has now begun to do. [...]. Recent events have cast some disturbing shadows on that reputation and the BBC Trust will not be content until we are convinced that the remedies we have agreed with the Executive - and which they are now energetically pursuing - have eradicated the problems."

OK. So since 2007, every chairman of the BBC Trust has expressed the same view. Now call me cynical but really, has anything substantially changed in this period? No. And if you accept that none of these chairs were ineffectual human beings, then there must be a systemic problem with the BBC itself - one that cannot be changed however hard a competent, intelligent, business-minded person tries.

So I return to my original point, like every chair of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead may well be kidding herself that it will be different under her tenure. She will spend a few years trying to achieve something while battering off allegations of impartiality and cronyism, fighting scandals and getting so totally worn out by the whole thing that she may well wonder if they do the finance minister of Greece's biker jacket in her size.