The news at lunchtime yesterday that Tony Hall is to be the next Director General of the BBC nearly caused me to choke on the last homegrown tomato of the year. It is always a poignant moment when one realises from now on it’s going to be unripe, tasteless, bullets until at least early summer next year. And you certainly don’t want bad news to add to the distress.
A quick look at my database throws up a few references to Hall, mostly encomiums from Roger Harrabin. As Head of News - preceding Helen Boaden - he gave the BBC’s one-and-only Environment Analyst his big chance when he encouraged him to set up the Cambridge Media and Environment Programme over a decade ago. This certainly showed very sensitive political antennae on Hall’s part as he jumped on the environmental bandwagon earlier than most.
Whether those antennae will identify the current change in the public’s attitude towards climate change, and whether he is capable of accommodating BBC coverage to the new political and economic circumstances in which climate change is no longer a priority remains to be seen. The alternative would be to continue with the present policy of attempting to educate the public, in line with the BBC’s very committed position on this divisive subject, rather than informing them impartially about the vast uncertainties that dog the subject.
In any case, Hall will bear the stigma in the eyes of many people of having fathered the series of Real World Brainstorm seminars that culminated in the 2006 event that was so dodgy that tens of thousands of pounds had to be spent keeping the participants list secret.
Yesterday, the BBC was wallowing in an orgy of self-congratulation. Tony Hall is, so far as insiders are concerned, the perfect choice; a consummate BBC type who, in the words of Mark Byford, (World at One, 22/11/2012) has public service broadcasting in his bones. In their eyes this is the saviour who can miraculously restore the BBC’s reputation to some fictitious state of unblemished trust and rectitude. Little time was wasted on pointing out that Hall was appointed at breakneck speed from a shortlist of one, or that his reason for leaving the BBC a decade ago seems to have been his failure to get the top job. Nor was there much said about Lord Patten’s appalling failure of judgement in appointing George Entwistle, who clearly wasn’t up to the job, and the very real danger that, if he didn’t appoint a replacement very quickly, his own position would continue to be extremely precarious. Is there any reason to think that his judgement has suddenly improved?
Over the last few years we have seen the BBC hit by scandal after scandal. Since Andrew Gilligan’s early morning escapade reporting the dodgy dossier, without any editorial supervision and Hutton Inquiry that followed, there have been a succession of scandals: ructions over manipulation of a royal film, Blue Peter’s involvement in the Great Phone Prize Scandal of 2007, unacceptable coverage of the Diamond Jubilee pageant, documentaries funded by environmental lobbyists, the Saville affair which apparently spans decades, and Newsnight’s appalling mistake over Lord McAlpine. BBC management seem to have learned nothing from these problems, most of which seem to involve a degree of dishonesty and attempting to cover up of issues that should have been confronted openly.
Now we have a Director General designate who, in March next year, will pick up the threads of his long and very successful career at the BBC after a spell working elsewhere. An old hand returning to the scene of former triumphs and no doubt easing himself back into the cosy culture that he knows so well.
It seems not to have occurred to Lord Patten that it is precisely this BBC culture that has caused all the problems of the past decade. In the Wagon Wheel report, published five years ago, John Bridcut identified the rather smug, metropolitan, university educated, young and liberal mindset that besets BBC management and ensures that, in many ways, the organisation is out of step with its audience. Anyone who has had experience of the BBC complaints process will be all too familiar with the organisation’s infuriatingly arrogant attitude to its audience. Auntie is always right, and those who don’t think so are either misguided, undereducated, fools or malicious and ungrateful troublemakers, probably of a right wing persuasion.
If ever the BBC really needed an outsider to come in, turn things upside-down, and clean house, it is now. The age that spawned the BBC culture that Entwistle represented, and Hall is now expected to restore and perpetuate, is well and truly over. The information age has made the Reithian model of public service broadcasting obsolete. No longer can an elite at Broadcasting House rely on a docile public to unquestioningly embrace the BBC outlook on the world. Nor can the BBC expect the public to accept their standards to be accepted as the benchmark for impartiality and editorial rigour, simply because they are the BBC’s standards.
Now the public have too much information at their fingertip, they know too much about what sources other than the BBC are saying, and above all they have become used to making up their own minds about what they should think. They are accustomed to distinguishing information from indoctrination in a way that their forbears were not when the BBC culture was formed.
I wish Tony Hall well, but I fear that when the history of the final decline and dissolution of the BBC is written, his appointment may be seen as a crucial missed opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage of this once great institution. At a time when even that most hide-bound of national institutions, the Church of England, has had the courage to appoint an ex-oilman to sort out its problems, Tony Hall looks awfully like George Entwistle Mark 2 to me.