Max Hastings

Diary - 14 February 2004

God save us from chairmen of the BBC who watch television

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It is hard to define qualifications for the new chairman and director-general of the BBC. Now that I am past being even a joke candidate, I will confess that I once told my old friend Christopher Bland I regretted not having been D-G. He remarked tersely, ‘You would have hated it, and you would have been rotten at it.’ The more we talked, the more I believed him. My own ideal of the D-G was formed as a teenage BBC researcher during Hugh Carleton Greene’s reign in the early Sixties. The function was then plainly understood to be editorial. This has long ceased to be the case. In recent years we have had Checkland, an accountant; the boundlessly creepy Birt, the tone of whose autobiography reminded some of us irresistibly of the 1924 apologia of a German politician whose name momentarily escapes me; and Greg Dyke, who always seemed uncomfortable with responsibility for the journalism, whatever his staff may have said since his emotional departure. The BBC is now so big, diverse and bureaucratic that the director-general’s burden has become almost intolerable. It looks no fun any more, certainly not in the way that editing the Telegraph and Evening Standard was fun for me. Running the Beeb involves endless meetings about technical, administrative and financial issues which would cause most of us to fall asleep in five minutes. It is necessary to be politically correct beyond sanity. It has been suggested that the function of editor-in-chief might be separated from that of D-G. This is implausible, for it would give the editor-in-chief responsibility without power.

The Corp also, of course, needs a new chairman. I recall Christopher Bland’s observations on that job, too, when he was chastised for failing to watch some BBC soap: ‘God save us from chairmen of the BBC who watch television!’ Davies’s successor will have to be somebody who can meet Mr Blair and his colleagues without visible revulsion — an increasingly tall order. The new chairman’s first task is to do something about the BBC’s governors, who have made fools of themselves. They should be replaced by a proper executive board. Then it will be chiefly a matter of addressing the BBC charter, a grim, meticulous job. Chris Patten has become too ubiquitous and, say unkind voices, too smug. We should be wary of Lord Birt’s sinuous influence in Downing Street upon the final choice. Terry Burns sounds most plausible among the names suggested, but we are not far off a Groucho Marx predicament, where anyone who wants either BBC job shows themselves unfit for it.

Game is absurdly cheap. Our household gets through 150 head a year, but some City flakes suppose that it is acceptable to kill birds without eating them. After a shoot the other day, Caroline Tisdall of the Countryside Alliance staged a game-cookery demo to promote sales. Clarissa Dickson Wright taught us a trick I have never seen before. Place a feathered pheasant on the floor and stand astride it, one foot on each wing. Then take the legs in both hands and pull firmly but steadily. One is left holding simply the skinned breast on the bone. This is much easier than plucking. I love raw grouse. The delightful Michel Roux produced delicious canapés from slivers of uncooked grouse breast (most easily carved in a semi-frozen state) set in a marinade of olive oil and touched with horseradish. He also hammered partridge breasts into escalopes and fried them in egg and breadcrumbs. They taste much more interesting than roast redleg.

Most of us loathe financial institutions for their incompetence and greed. My own spleen focuses on American Express. I held a card for 25 years before abandoning it on principle when they imposed an annual ‘cardholders’ charge’ in addition to the fat percentage they take from retailers. Modern life proved difficult without a credit card, however, and in my editing days I got another. Large sums passed through it on my employers’ account. Bills were paid in full, by return. Then one day in Wiltons, to my acute embarrassment, the card was returned, dishonoured. Investigation proved that, for whatever reason, the previous month’s invoice had not reached me, and thus went unpaid. The account was blocked without warning. I cut up the card in a rage. Two years later, my wife persuaded me to swallow my pride and collect the BA air miles that now go with Amex. I started again. All went well until Christmas, when a sudden instinct suggested that I had not paid a bill for a while. I checked. Blow me, I had not received a December statement. The card was blocked, 36 hours before I was due to take the family on a skiing trip. I paid by telephone after hours — literally hours — on hold, receiving scant satisfaction from Amex voices to whom I protested. One woman rebuked me sharply for using bad language when I screeched, ‘All I want to do is pay the bloody bill!’ I wrote a savage letter of complaint, suggesting that it is a breach of natural justice to cash my cheques each month on receipt, two or three weeks ahead of the due date, yet to block my card and impose an interest charge without the courtesy of a phone call, after a single missed payment. It took 30 days after my letter was dispatched before somebody rang to offer an apology. I fear that even this was ad hominem rather than an admission that the company’s policy was fundamentally flawed.

Spectator readers might recall that last autumn, in this column, I inveighed against the absurdity of sign-language-interpreted opera performances for the deaf. Before Christmas, after enduring another such ridiculous occasion, I wrote to the ROH asking a series of questions. Was this idea their own, or was it prompted by the Department for Culture? How many people at the average opera performance are both deaf and unable to read surtitles? Should there not be a discount for the rest of the audience at sign-language-interpreted performances? It is hard to concentrate on the singers with a madwoman standing at the edge of the stage waving her arms. Since most of the audience cannot understand the words of an opera sung in a foreign language, why should deaf as well as apparently illiterate patrons expect to do so? Finally, must we assume that this nonsense will form a permanent part of the Royal Opera’s repertory?

News of the impending sale of Conrad Black’s mansion in Cottesmore Gardens coincided with an attic clearance at our little house in Fulham. My wife Penny insisted on salvaging assorted junk for removal to the country, including a children’s toboggan. This was crammed in the car when we drove through Cottesmore Gardens, en route to dinner at Launceston Place. As we passed the darkened windows of Ch