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A new John Birt wouldn’t be the boss any more at Patten’s BBC

Category : Business

The future of broadcasting looks so tumultuous that some say the corporation needs a visionary like Lord B. But how would he or she handle being monitored by a powerful Lord P?

There’s no sense of a dying of the light as Mark Thompson, announcing “Project Barcelona” and taking shrewd pot shots at press detractors, plays out his last few months as BBC director general. This is a man of ambition thinking of his next big job. But Barcelona itself – the ability to download BBC programmes moments after they’ve been broadcast – intrinsically makes a point that corporation watchers are stressing. The pace of technical change is so fast, the surrounding competition so fast, that surely the BBC’s next DG must be a visionary-cum-reformer in the mould of… well, John Birt?

That argument – from the shrewd Steve Hewlett, among others – sets pigeons flapping hard over Langham Place. Birtism lives again? You might as well ordain a new Thatcher era. But even raising the idea defines something important that’s changed.

Let’s agree John Birt did some valuable, if unpopular, things in his DG time. Let’s also agree that Duke Hussey, when chairman of the governors, was right to recruit him. But then also remember that Hussey’s old job is not what today’s chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, is all about. The trust – stepping in to save 6Music, rescue some of Asian Network and defend local radio – is not a partner for the DG and his colleagues, but a monitor and arbiter. And Lord Patten, very clearly, sees that as a new and in many ways superior role.

Would the John Birt of old have relished such a relationship? Can any new candidate be expected to take on Patten and colleagues in pursuit of his or her vision? Remember who makes the appointment, after all: Lord P (as in primus inter pares).

■ There are tender eulogies to the old BBC World Service as the removal vans cluster outside Bush House. Life won’t seem the same in the brand new integrated newsroom at Broadcasting House, funded all too soon from the licence fee rather than William Hague’s FO budget. Nevertheless, let’s not doubt a BBC desire to keep its flag flying high.

What’s more difficult, a year or two down the line, is seeing how such desire will fare once the brutal questions are asked. Do you, the licence payer, want the horseracing you follow to be part of the programming you pay for – or reporting to Burma and Pakistan that you can’t see or hear? Do you want drama on BBC4 – or Persian language TV?

The difficulty with dilemmas like these is that they’re inevitable, with an infinitely predictable outcome over time. If governments from Paris to Moscow want to put over their version of events to the world, they reach for their chequebooks. If the US, through its Voice of America, wishes to spread Washington’s enlightenment, then Congress knows well enough who has to pay. Only in Britain will you find governments believing that the BBC – and thus ordinary viewers and listeners – must be prepared to dig deep in their pockets to finance programmes that barely register in UK parlours. It’s a pleasing, altruistic belief. But come back in five years’ time to see, probably sadly, if it’s rubbish.