The old BBC was mad but honest

IN 1982, the BBC held a Service of Thanksgiving in St Paul's Cathedral, which I attended as the vice-chairman of what was then the board of governors. The thanksgiving was held for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the organisation. We were celebrating our own corporate achievements.

By William Rees-mogg

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Wed 25 Jul 2007, 8:30 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

The second reading was from the first chapter of St John's Gospel. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.'

At the time I was surprised that the BBC should have chosen this passage because it amounted to a claim that the BBC could be compared to the Christian concept of God, 'the true light'.

I found my colleagues were not in the least surprised, and could not understand why I felt the comparison to be in any way inappropriate. 'In the beginning was the BBC...' That made sense to them.

This was the old BBC, the corporation that still looked back to the first director-general, Lord Reith, as the one man who understood the highest spiritual function of his work in broadcasting. For them, the BBC existed to be the monopoly broadcaster, the guardian of the national culture, the expositor of the British ideal. They were only a generation after those who had fought to the last ditch against the innovation of independent television; they still pronounced the word 'commercial' with sibilant contempt.

I met Lord Reith only once, when he addressed a postgraduate dining club of which I was then a member. I recall that Peter Tapsell was present; he is now a senior -- and valued -- Conservative Member of Parliament.

Lord Reith took offence at some critical opinion expressed by the 25-year-old Tapsell and accused him of condescension. He described Tapsell's intervention as 'd'haut en bas' (from top to bottom) which Reith pronounced as one word: 'dotenbass'. I thought it was Reith who was the dotenbass speaker, and indeed that he had built a dotenbass BBC in his own image. He was a great man; the trouble was that he was barking mad.

At the time, I belonged to the reform movement on the board of governors. Like most reformers, we saw ourselves as modernists. We wanted the BBC to move closer to modern commerce, to sell its products to the world, to work on a more modest staff, to give better funding to news, to abandon Concorde and caviar as executive perks -- not to mention the BBC flat in New York -- and to promote women above the glass ceiling of middle management.

In short, we advocated a reform programme suited to the mid-Eighties. We were not revolutionaries, we were not even Greg Dykes, but we did foresee the need for the reforms carried through by Lord Hussey five years later.

It is now 20 years since those reforms were introduced. The world has yet to see a female director-general of the BBC -- the glass ceiling has been raised a foot or two, but has not yet been smashed.

I share Kelvin MacKenzie's view that Jenny Abramsky should have been made directorgeneral on the last vacancy 'because she puts the fear of God up colleagues'. That, after all, was one of the reasons that Reith was a successful director-general.

Yet the problem now is not that the BBC is too old-fashioned -- would that it were. The old BBC was self-indulgent, but there were certain things that it would not have done. It would not have fiddled competition results. It would not have stitched up the Queen in order to promote a programme. It would not have fired the director-general -- let alone the chairman -- in response to an obsessive vendetta by a Downing Street Press officer.

The BBC may have had a laughably exaggerated view of its own role in the world -- it sometimes did -- but it acted in accordance with its own high view of its responsibilities. There were standards to keep, and an independence to defend. The old BBC had some notable faults, but one has to remember that this old BBC created the reputation on which what is now called 'the brand' still trades.

During the Blair years, the politicians got at the BBC. Alastair Campbell largely politicised the government's own information service, with regrettable results. He may or may not have been responsible for the refashioning of the BBC's system of governance, but that fits in with the general media policy of his period in office.

The old governors of the BBC let themselves down over the Hutton Report, but they and their predecessors had fought to maintain the BBC's independence for 80 years, usually with success.

They have been replaced by the BBC Trust and Ofcom. That may not be a change for the better. The change may not be good for the independence of the BBC or, in all probability, for the quality of BBC broadcasting.

The main defect of the old system of running the BBC was that it depended on the relationship between the board of government and the board of management, and particularly on the relationship between the chairman and the director-general. When these relationships were good, the system worked well. When they broke down, resignations usually had to follow.

Now there is a much more distant relationship between the board of management and the trustees, in which the trustees do not have the direct involvement in deciding policy that the governors enjoyed. I cannot see that this is likely to improve the relationship of the two bodies. The trustees have no function in programme-making except to criticise, so criticise they will.

The managers will not have to consult the trustees in the way that they had to consult the governors. As we were consulted, we usually came to agree on the best policy, and we felt committed to the policies once they were agreed.

On top, there is the structure of Ofcom, which has only limited powers over the BBC but has to examine the impact of strategic BBC investments on other broadcasters. In the old system of governance, there was a genuine feeling that we were working together in one BBC. Now these supervisory bodies are alien forces. I doubt whether that will work well.

In theory, the business models of the BBC, and indeed of the NHS, are seriously defective. No one nowadays would create a producer-led state monopoly, financed by taxation, as the best model for a national service, either in broadcasting or health.

Yet the BBC and the NHS both exist. The job is to make them work.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

More news from