GIVEN the almost universal acclaim from media pundits, the appointment of Lord Tony Hall as the new director general of the BBC appears to augur well.
He combines proven leadership of the Royal Opera House, a major and oft- troubled cultural institution with a distinguished record as a BBC journalist and editor. But managerial competence and past experience of the BBC, while important, are not sufficient to make this an outstanding appointment. What is required is the determination and resolve to see through a thorough-going change of culture.
Lord Hall’s priority is to restore the corporation’s reputation after the debacles of the past few weeks. This will be no easy task because its problems run deep into the heart of an institution where a self-regarding bureaucracy has run rife, where chiefs have looked in danger of out-numbering indians, and where clear and succinct speaking gave way to managerial buzzwords and gobbledygook.
The new director general will have to be rigorous and ruthless when it comes to any part the BBC has played in the Savile debacle. He has to declutter its layers of responsibility-dodging management. He has to return the corporation to solid, reliable programme making and journalism.
These are the immediate priorities. But there has to be a greater mission. Real vision and courage will require him to shape the BBC as an organisation that can stand on its own two feet and not rely on state funding – an anachronism that surely will not survive much longer.
Why does the agenda have to be so radical? Public confidence in the BBC as a reliable and trustworthy source of news and analysis has been shaken by recent events. The problem was not just that a contentious story which gave credence, effectively if not directly, to an untrue and potentially most serious destruction of character and reputation passed the immediate front line of fact checking. It was the immediate paucity of response to this crisis and the lame performance of the previous director general that exposed deeper weaknesses. At the heart of the case for a state-supported broadcaster was an assumption that it was the guardian of excellence in journalism and programme-making. This was asserted every time the BBC was required to defend itself from instances of shortcoming. More recently it was invoked to justify its extraordinary generous licence-fee funding, salaries – and pay-offs – of departing executives. It came to regard ever greater subventions as an entitlement and that its high qualities were self-evident. Put bluntly, the BBC has lost touch – not just with trustworthy journalism, but with financial realities. Lord Hall has pledged to return the BBC’s news operation to world-beating status of old. To fulfil this ambition he needs to be bold and radical immediately – and have a steely determination to push through change against well entrenched resistance.
Resign to the inevitable
FIRST Minister Alex Salmond clearly has a difficulty with his Education Secretary Michael Russell. He may feel that in supplying inaccurate and misleading figures the minister has caused him embarrassment and let him down. He may also feel that the tardiness of the minister’s apology for doing so this week worked to undermine his own, and that because of this the minister has failed to cauterise a highly difficult episode for the administration.
But these are not the reasons why Mr Salmond should now request Mr Russell to resign. The greater damage that has been done has been to the parliament and in particular the responsibility that falls on MSPs through the committee system to hold government ministers to account.
This scrutiny and accountability is seriously impaired when the parliament has been given flawed and misleading information. The ability of the education committee and more generally the parliament to assess the real situation facing further education colleges has been impaired by wrong data. Accompanying this has been the appearance of an arrogant insouciance by the education secretary as he laughed and smirked through First Minister’s Questions last week. Coming on top of the high handed – and rather fatuous – rebuke to the chairman of Stow College, this raised further questions over the minister’s judgment.
These are the reasons why Mr Russell has lost the confidence of the education sector, many of Holyrood’s MSPs and the public at large. It is to safeguard the responsibilities of the Scottish parliament and public confidence in the machinery of parliament that the First Minister now needs to ask Mr Russell to stand down.