Three jobs only a madman would covet, and all of them up for grabs this spring: manager of the England football team, Archbishop of Canterbury and director general of the BBC. Wouldn’t the world be a much happier place if, by May, something weird happened to all the applications and we ended up with John Sentamu running the BBC, Helen Boaden managing England at Euro 2012 and, best of all, Harry Redknapp as Archbishop of Canterbury? It would certainly increase the gaiety of the nation. ‘I think my lads have got it in them for a top four finish, behind the Muslims, the left-footers and the Hindus. And I think that’s a great achievement, Gary, when you consider that only a year or so ago we were fighting it out in mid-table with yer bleedin’ Sikhs and yer Jains and what have you.’
What these three jobs have in common, aside from a decentish salary (or ‘chicken-feed’, as the Conservative mayoral candidate might refer to it), is the chance to be universally loathed and derided, on a daily basis, by everyone. There is pretty much nothing you can do to dispel the contumely; they are jobs where the expectations of the public can only ever be horribly thwarted. You will be held in comparison with Lord Reith, Sir Alf and Thomas Cranmer — regardless of the fact that since those happier days, the goalposts have been moved several miles from their original position and indeed may no longer even exist. A fairly large minority of people favour the disestablishment of at least two of the jobs. All of them end, one way or another, in failure and ignominy and are in truth only ever about managed, or unmanaged, decline. Your honeymoon period with the press will last for 11 days or until you are a) beaten at home by São Tomé and Principe or b) suggest you’ve never had much time for either sodomites or Africans, to be honest or c) commission Sheikh Abu Hamza al Masri to present a groundbreaking documentary series on the history of Israel. Whatever you do will enrage, at one time or another, both left and right. Let’s be clear: these are appalling, thankless jobs.
Of the three incumbents who have, with audible sighs of relief, got the hell out in the last month or so, Mark Thompson’s record is perhaps the most creditable. The BBC still exists and the licence fee has not been enormously diluted — something which, at the time of Greg Dyke’s departure, you might not have taken for granted. Certainly Thompson understood better than Dyke the notion of public service broadcasting, even if the corporation still does its cack-handed balancing act, a sort of moral cross-subsidisation — playing to the gallery with the ghastly The One Show and stuff like Strictly Come Dancing, while retaining a solid and extremely impressive journalistic core. Believe me — whatever misgivings you might have about the corporation, its journalism at the top level is very good indeed. Dyke, for his part, was never terribly keen on the journalism side of things; it was news, he once said, that gave him trouble — and which of course did for him in the end.
Thompson has shown a better grip here than most have done. Like all preceeding DGs since time immemorial (with the exception of Dyke), he has confessed that the BBC had — in the past, natch, it is always in the past — shown a certain liberal bias. He has not done terribly much to address this problem, although the move of many staff to Salford might, in time, chip away at the corporation’s immense metropolitan smugness, which is a fairly large part of the problem. There have been the inevitable scandals, but he has ridden most of them well; the inflated salaries for half-witted presenters of light-ent shows will not be repeated.
Who will replace him, then, assuming Harry Redknapp stays with Spurs? At least two of the names bandied about by the newspapers cannot, surely, be serious, and must be the work of overactive PR monkeys. ITV’s Peter Fincham and the BBC’s director of audio and music Tim Davie may have admirable qualities but the latter’s complete and utter lack of journalism in his background and the former’s fairly catastrophic tenancy of the post of controller of BBC1, and evisceration in the Wyatt report, must rule them out. Usually at these times the name of Lord Puttnam hoves into view, but it has not done so on this occasion; the BBC tried the big charismatic outside appointment before, with Dyke, and lived to regret it. Although I could think of far worse candidates.
Roger Mosey, who is now in charge of the BBC’s Olympic coverage, should be in with a good shout. He is the best journalist I’ve worked with in 30 years and better equipped than any to challenge the corporation’s excruciating political correctness and occasional lack of gravitas. Whether the bloke would want it or not is another issue. In the end we may be left with George Entwhistle, who is director of something called BBC Vision, and Helen Boaden, the director of news. Both are highly regarded within the corporation, although whether or not that is something to commend them to normal human beings is a different issue, of course. Boaden is canny to a point which Machiavelli would have appreciated and is, within the field, journalistically the most highbrow. I think she’s a good bet, if they decide in the end not to give it to Sentamu.