Of all the words written and spoken about the BBC in recent days, two phrases struck a chord. The first was the PM saying that he didn’t think that the corporation was facing an existential crisis; and the second was the call for someone to get a grip. Both points were, I felt, wrong. Firstly, I do believe that the BBC is facing an existential crisis although not a new one. The question is what is the BBC for? The original Reithian principles of educate, entertain and inform, whilst still relevant, have been seemingly stretched to embrace anything and everything. In fact, in the firestorm surrounding journalistic standards on one programme it is easy to forget just what the BBC is.
The BBC is the world class institution behind creative drama masterpieces such as Parade’s End, and entertainment such as Doctor Who. The UK’s radio output is the envy of the world (I, for one, couldn’t imagine life without Radios 3 & 4). The BBC is also one of the biggest employers of full-time musicians in the world, running six symphony orchestras and a professional choir. And then there’s the natural history unit, and sport, and supporting social policy initiatives (eg BBC Click). And what about its digital work, its web sites and the outstanding iPlayer? And, of course, there’s the World Service (funded by the Foreign Office – something that I’m sure always raises a chuckle in the Kremlin).
The point is that many people are seeing this particular journalistic issue as being the only problem, and one that requires a hands-on journalist to sort out. For sure, the bloated (in parts) management structure may have contributed to the problem, although probably less likely than that of institutional capture (too many BBC people are “lifers” and perhaps can only see issues through BBC eyes). The BBC’s reputation is more than its journalism, and the next DG must be someone who can understand more than just the day-to-day rough and tumble of the news agenda
The second point was the call for someone who can get a grip. I’m sure that this phrase was used in the context of bringing some order to the current crisis, but what is not needed in the long run is a gripper. The next DG cannot be editor-in-chief any more than be principal flautist-in-chief, chief camera technician, final arbiter of all Radio and TV schedules, costume designer-in-chief, comedy chief. The next DG needs to be someone who can provide a vision for this marvellous but sprawling institution, and make sense of what it means to be a national broadcaster in a modern digital world. The media world is fragmenting in the face of disruptive technology and cost pressures and it would be wrong to deny the BBC the opportunity to have its own existentialist crisis when every other media organisation is having theirs.
Organisations are complex entities, and few are more complex than the BBC. The next DG needs to be able to create a narrative for the BBC which allows it to be true to its original purpose but relevant in the modern world. Rather than getting a grip the next DG needs to be able to create a culture that is comfortable with ambiguity, that is collaborative and sharing, and with less hierarchy. Modern leaders recognise that leadership is about setting a vision and building teams that are empowered to act. It is not about doing everyone’s job for them. Leadership is not about decision making: it is about creating the environment in which people are able to take their own decisions. Being editor-in-chief merely encourages all issues to be upwardly delegated leading to paralysis in the organisation. Perhaps the next DG should take a lead from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and think of themselves as chief conductor. Motivate and lead, but don’t try and blow their trumpet for them.