Any high profile vacancy at a national institution inevitably raises speculation, rumours and arguments about who should step into the empty shoes. Chris Patten’s departure from the Chairmanship of the BBC Trust (for reasons of ill-health) has already attracted far more than the normal amount.
The general controversy which surround the Corporation during his tenure is one reason – the worst few years the BBC has ever seen were handled with a sluggish pomposity by almost everyone involved, not least Patten himself.
As a result, some argue for him to be replaced by a big Westminster beast who can weather political storms, others for a figure from the media or industry who could depoliticise the job. (Labour simply warned against appointing a “Tory stooge”, presumably on the grounds that it would be wrong to break such a long tradition of Labour stooges at the BBC).
Dealing with scandals has certainly been the central purpose of BBC managers in recent years. But it would be a dreadful mistake to make that the main criterion on which to select Patten’s successor.
As we’ve covered before on this blog, the BBC faces fundamental challenges to its business and governance models. The media is moving towards micropurchasing and infinite choice, but the BBC remains monolithic and compulsory. Politics is moving towards greater direct democracy, transparency and accountability, but the BBC remains a vast quango, often accountable only to itself. Our national broadcaster was once above reproach, now it has fallen from its pedestal.
Auntie’s entire funding model is set to be swept away by technological change, and even the House of Commons – not always the most up to date body in the land – recently voted to end the unfair criminalisation of those who fail to pay the licence fee. Huge changes are afoot, whether the BBC likes it or not.
One day the compulsory TV licence will be a historical oddity, just as the radio licence seems today – I suspect we will eventually see the BBC become a voluntary subscription service.
Whoever he or she might be, the new Chairman of the BBC Trust must be able to navigate all these social and technological factors in the most important Charter Renewal in the Corporation’s history.
This is the real question for those hunting for a successor to Patten. Simply considering how candidates might have handled the Savile or McAlpine scandals would be to repeat the British Army’s mistake of always training to fight the previous war.
Instead, they should be thinking to the future. With a host of unavoidable challenges to the BBC’s outdated ways, the next set of battles it fights will determine its form, its function and perhaps its survival.