I have just returned from sunny Los Angeles, visiting Simon Cowell, the subject of my most recent biography. He told me about a visit by Cheryl Cole to his amazing house in Beverly Hills to patch up their arguments. ‘My book is number 1,’ boasted Cheryl. ‘Mine was number 1 for six weeks,’ countered Cowell, enjoying a rare moment of self-congratulation amid a sharp drop of The X Factor USA’s ratings on Fox TV. Everyone, it seems, is having a crisis.
I am grateful to John Birt for offering me my first job in TV (at Granada). But I blame his legacy for the current crisis, the latest in a long line since I joined BBC current affairs in 1970. Under Birt’s ‘blue skies thinking’ between 1987 and 2000, the BBC wasted billions of pounds on consultants, structural changes, jargon-infested bureaucracy, an Amazonian gravy train of expenses and salaries, and a stupendous property spree. Under Birt, the BBC moved from old Broadcasting House in central London to west London and under Mark Thompson, a neo-Birtist, it moved back to ‘New’ Broadcasting House, a branding folly reflecting the BBC’s allegiance to the Blairite Labour party. And then £800 million was wasted moving to a Salford wasteland. Spending billions on property rather than programmes reflected Birt’s and Thompson’s obsessions at the expense of outstanding producers and journalists throughout the BBC, including Newsnight and the Today.
Mark Thompson, a shrewd operator, is also responsible for the current crisis. He failed to nurture proper successors and encouraged Newsnight’s pursuit of the Murdochs. Over dinner in the Olympic village, he justified to me his vengeance against James Murdoch: ‘We have to follow the story.’ Now we’re following the twists of his inconsistent explanations about Newsnight’s Savile programme, although he has slipped away to New York. His discomfort is causing merriment in Wapping.
George Blake’s celebration of his 90th birthday in Moscow is a reminder about another pillar of the British establishment being humbled. I spent three months with the traitor in Moscow in 1990 recording his first interview after escaping from Wormwood Scrubs. During my stay, I met many KGB officers. One, Leonid Shebarshin, a former KGB chief, wanted to visit London, officially. I obtained a visa describing him as a TV researcher. On the day he entered Britain I was called by an MI5 officer. ‘We know Shebarshin arrived at Heathrow,’ sniffed the officer, ‘but we forgot to ask where he’s staying. Can you help us?’ Naturally I obliged. The next day Shebarshin described how he had been lunched at the Hilton by MI6 officers urging him to defect. ‘In the middle of the dining room!’ scoffed Moscow’s finest, disproving the myth about the subtlety of British intelligence officers.
Shredded reputations have been at the heart of the BBC’s crisis. Only BBC suckers believed that Entwistle — a Birtist clone who had never made an original programme and flunked coverage of the Jubilee celebrations — justified Chris Patten’s praise as the outstanding candidate. The selection process was contrived to conceal Entwistle’s anointment as a putative DGxyears ago. The next selection will be more open but cannot be entrusted to Patten, exposed as a flawed character.
To avoid chaos, Patten cannot be fired without the government naming his successor. Step forward Tony Hall, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive. Hall was a respected editor of flagship broadcasting who resigned as the director of BBC News in 1999. Doubters should consider his success at Covent Garden and his rescue of the Cultural Olympiad from disaster. Hall knows how to rebuild a valuable institution mired by greed, stupidity and cowardice. Every crisis produces a solution. This one should not be wasted.
Next stop Houston to deliver a speech to a conference of oil executives. It was only a few years ago that Shell started to invest heavily in hydraulic fracking, a means of releasing oil and gas trapped in rocks. But already fracking has transformed America’s energy market, sent its gas prices plummeting and (according to the latest estimates) will help the US become almost entirely self-sufficient in energy by 2035. The ‘peak-oil’ advocates hailing the reduction of supplies now look foolish and Opec’s producers will also suffer if they don’t stop rigging the market. Big Oil is revolutionising the balance of power between the West and Opec. Real drama is coming soon.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012