Who should be the next chairman of the BBC? Should it be Terry Burns, the former Treasury mandarin and chairman of Abbey National? Or Michael Grade, the former chief executive of Channel 4? Or Michael Portillo? Their names are believed to be among the 79 people who have applied for the chairmanship. A great deal of lobbying is taking place. Two of the candidates set out their stalls last weekend at a conference of British and Italian journalists and politicians held at the Palazzo Labia in Venice.
Lord Burns was not there in person, but was represented by his chief sponsor and supporter on earth, John Birt, director-general of the BBC from 1992 until 2000. The two men are old pals. They have been on walking holidays together — oddly enough in the company of Robin Butler, the chap who is conducting the inquiry into intelligence failures and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Lords Birt, Burns and Butler last dined together (so it was reported by the London Evening Standard) on 27 February at the high table of University College, Oxford, where Lord Butler is Master. Lord Birt is a ‘strategy adviser’ to the Prime Minister and, although his brief does not include the media, he is doing what he can to advance the cause of his old mate, Lord Burns. He may be pushing on an open door. Tony Blair will chose the next chairman of the BBC partly on the advice of the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. Quite apart from the support he enjoys from Lord Birt, Lord Burns is probably the favoured candidate of Ms Jowell, having been appointed by her last September to act as an ‘independent adviser’ to the review of the BBC’s charter and licence fee.
Lord Birt is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I must say that what he said made a lot of sense. If Lord Burns shares his friend’s views, he might not be a bad chairman. Lord Birt’s point, in a debate about public service broadcasting which he introduced, was that broadcasters including the BBC have dumbed down. ITV had dispensed with nearly all its highbrow programmes. Channel 4 was ‘ever more commercially focused’. The BBC itself ‘had not been immune’ and had ‘slipped off the public service rails’. It was sometimes ‘ratings obsessed’ and should have ‘a greater purity of purpose’. All this, of course, was a not particularly veiled attack on the regime of the previous BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, and its previous director-general, Greg Dyke, both of whom resigned after the recent Hutton report. According to Lord Birt, the BBC needs to re-affirm its public service values. The implication was that such a re-affirmation would give the BBC a greater chance of maintaining the licence fee from 2006, though in any event, in a world of multiplying digital channels, the Corporation would have to come to terms with a gradually shrinking audience.
Sitting not far from Lord Birt was Michael Portillo, whose once vulpine features now appear almost beatific. Let me digress a little about Mr Portillo. The previous afternoon the conference had discussed the euro, and while not actually disavowing his opposition to it (which was once so extreme that John Major called him a ‘bastard’), Mr Portillo showed a new broadmindedness. His main point, repeated several times, was that Tony Blair had lost influence in Europe, and had been unable to play the leadership role that would otherwise have been open to him, because Britain had stayed outside the euro. For a man like Mr Portillo, for whom power is the alpha and omega of politics, this sounded like a lament. If Britain wants to be important in Europe, he was in effect saying, it would one day have to accept the euro. He added that he thought that public opinion in Britain would become more favourable to the euro if and when the German economy again became more successful than the British.
My prediction is that the man who famously invoked the SAS as an example of Britain’s ruthless use of military power, and who also once suggested that foreigners cheat at exams, will eventually embrace the euro as part of his never ending journey towards political enlightenment. Of course, it will not happen soon, since the euro is not at the moment a burning issue, but when it becomes so again Mr Portillo will have to make a very short step to find himself standing shoulder to shoulder with Tony Blair in the pro-euro camp.
Will Mr Portillo be the next chairman of the BBC? He plainly wants to be, and last week refused to rule himself out when asked by members of the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative constituency association about his intentions. His jettisoning of his once fierce opposition to the euro will not hinder him in his ambition: a feral Eurosceptic would hardly be acceptable within the hallowed portals of the Corporation. At the Palazzo Labia he was performing in front of exquisite Tiepolo frescoes — and also Charlie Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, who will have taken back positive reports to No. 10. But I suppose that Lord Burns, being favoured by Lord Birt and Tessa Jowell, is on the inside track, and the more likely choice. Michael Grade, by the way, is probably viewed as being too demotic a character for the job.
Both Lord Burns and Mr Portillo would be friendly to New Labour, and some might object to them on these grounds. But actually the most important challenge is to find a chairman who really believes in public service broadcasting, and would, along with the governors, try to preserve the BBC against continuing dumbing down. Mark Byford, who became acting director-general after the resignation of Greg Dyke, is likely to get the job of director-general. Like Lord Burns, he is also a favourite of Lord Birt’s, but I would not be over-optimistic about his determination — or ability — to reverse the dumbing down of the BBC without some encouragement from the chairman and governors. Perhaps no one can turn this juggernaut around, and put it back on Lord Birt’s ‘public service rails’. Yet, for all his absurdities, Mr Portillo is a man of culture, and it is possible that he was put on earth by God for this task.
The editor of this magazine has very sensibly asked me not to mention too often the upmarket newspaper which colleagues and I are planning. But I am sure that he will not mind my thanking the many people — about 150 at the most recent count — who have written to me asking for jobs. Some of them are very eminent. The problem is that you cannot offer jobs to journalists on a newspaper which does not yet exist, and my time at the moment (since I have no secretarial help) is probably better spent in trying to raise the money than in answering letters one by one. However, I will try to do so when I can, and in the meantime would ask everyone to be patient.