Director General of the BBC: Open for Applications
About 25 years ago I was asked the same question by the Times.
It was a very different era. The UK was arousing itself from a long period of decline.
What I wrote looks naive now.
The UK needs growth again but the Government’s “growth strategy” does not include the BBC, the UK’s largest media company — though outside observers remind us from time to time that the UK should be doing so much better in technology and entertainment.
I try to write about media regulation in a useful way. My special interest in the topic is different from most others’ — I’m mainly interested in the impact of regulation on culture.
Cultural innovation needs new energies and new energies need new opportunities.
A Mirror of the Nation…
The BBC has been given the job of being a kind of mirror of the nation. This is the role politicians have wanted for it — and it’s a very political organisation. This is a complex and difficult role.
We’re all there somewhere, however different, and to some extend share each other’s spaces. In the week ending 8th April, of the 4.1m people who watched at least 5 minutes of one edition of Newsnight, 1.2m also watched at least 5 minutes of EastEnders.
..but the Nation is Anxious
It therefore cannot help reflecting the mood of the nation, which in turn influences the whole tone of the organisation.
The UK, like other European nations, is in a kind of crisis of confidence. I could not possibly cover that in a single blog — so here are just two elements in the underlying unease.
One worry is that our society is disintegrating.
The first anxiety – you could call it on of the central anxieties of the social democratic project — is not limited to the UK or even Europe. Charles Murray puts the extreme case for it, the divergence between a “cognitive elite” and what he calls the “white working class”.
While having impeccably liberal views, the cognitive elite work hard, have stable marriages (more or less), and keep fit.
But over in Murray’s mythical sink working class district, which he calls Fishtown, there are hardly any families with two biological parents, an astounding rate of welfare dependency, little ability to hold down a job and lots of obese people.
Fishtown is poor, but socially expensive.
His point: the cognitive elite does the right things but its liberal views stop it promoting standards for others.
But then if you’re poor with children to feed, the budget does not run to organic broccoli florets or a private trainer.
So it goes.
So the BBC is caught in a kind of gridlock. The BBC has Newsnight and Eastenders but the debates always come out the same. One side of the house wants to spend more on education. The other side says it’s hopeless: bad parents and truculent children mean unemployable kids.
So it goes.
..and an Identity Crisis.
The second anxiety, permeating European nations, is that they are losing their political and cultural identity. At the behest of the Member States, national broadcasters get the right – and the money — to carry on with the job of securing their cultural borders. Forget about the Single Market. Or a Growth Strategy.
And the new Director General?
So the BBC is a kind of expression both of the desire for community and a paralysis or uncertainty at the heart of the nation.
The new Director General of the BBC will need to recognise this and deal effectively with the politicians who will determine its future.
The staff would love someone who once made programmes like Mark Thompson, who edited Panorama.
But I still hope the new DG will also be a person who is now addressing some of these questions.
Someone who can face up to the fact that the best American drama is just, well, better. Are we just trying to do too much? And spreading it too thin?
Who can face down those who say the BBC is too big — they have little credibility. But the BBC cannot be allowed to dampen entrepreneurial energies elsewhere.
Who can freshen tired repetitious debates, look for a way out of the gridlock. Does anyone else feel the BBC intellectually dull?
Who can work with other European partners to express in resonant stories the contemporary truth of a middle-sized European country, helping the UK to become a leading European media player and helping to create a European culture that’s bigger than a Member State identity crisis.
PPS. An afterthought: you might be interested in some of Charles Murray’s suggestions. He doesn’t pretend it’s straightforward.