Matthew Parris

Why this should be David Dimbleby’s finest hour

Why this should be David Dimbleby’s finest hour

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The obvious can be so obvious that we discount it, supposing that other people must have thought of it already. There is an obvious candidate for chairman of the BBC governors. I have no idea whether he is going for it, but if not then he should be and people should be telling him so.

David Dimbleby would be at the same time a solid and an inspired choice for the helm of an anxious public body going though tempestuous times and in need of the confidence of public, politicians and its own employees. And, no, I have not just had lunch with Mr Dimbleby. I do know his programme’s editor (who is not the originator of this idea) but have never spoken with or met Dimbleby other than as one of the panellists on his BBC2 Question Time programmes. I know him only in the way most Spectator readers (and, for instance, the three million television viewers who watched Question Time the day after Lord Hutton reported) feel we do — as someone we implicitly trust: a holder-of-the-ring; sharp-minded, rigorous and authoritative, but gentle-mannered and fair. Without losing his edge he has become a fatherly figure: gentlemanly, almost old-fashioned, but nobody’s fool and not one to let politicians pull the wool over his eyes.

There can never have been a time when the BBC has been in greater need of a conspicuous display of these qualities. I realise that news and current affairs is only a part of the Corporation’s output, but Mr Dimbleby’s cultural qualifications are evident and his own programme marries serious with popular broadcasting: he shows no bias against entertainment. Meanwhile, politics are the rocks through which the Corporation has the immediate need to steer. After Hutton, after its bruising encounter with Alastair Campbell, after losing a chairman and director-general overnight, and when anxiety that the Corporation might be ‘cowed’ by government has been so widely felt that ministers are embarrassed by the idea, it is important, not least to the government itself, to find a chairman thought able to ‘stand up to’ politicians.

The public think so too, of course. Listeners and viewers would want a chairman upon whom a director-general could rely for support when leaned upon by ministers. We know Question Time is one of the most leaned-on programmes in the BBC’s range, and we sense that the programme has always withstood it valiantly. The BBC’s own staff need to feel the same. They will want a chairman prepared to stand up for them, and they will also be reassured if such a chairman has direct and inside knowledge of broadcasting.

No chairman in recent memory has been a professional broadcaster. Perhaps it has been felt that an arm’s-length relationship with the domain they govern has been no bad thing. But in the Andrew Gilligan affair Lord Hutton complained that the governors should not have relied on what BBC management told them, and should instead have made their own inquiries. A Dimbleby would have known at once what questions to ask, and of whom; and could have judged the answers, too.

The most substantial beneficiaries of establishing a figure like Mr Dimbleby as the Corporation’s chairman, however, would be Downing Street, the government, and the whole political class. Politicians are not trusted at present, and do not themselves trust the media to report them fairly. To begin repairing the relationship it is obvious that a belligerent chairman could achieve nothing. But there is an opposite danger: if it could be so much as hinted that the new appointee was a politicians’ stooge, then that would be very damaging to a Downing Street hugely sensitive to the charge that it seeks to cow the Corporation.

As any regular viewer of Question Time knows, Dimbleby steers a deft course between these alternative dangers. He palpably likes politicians; he is not reflexively cynical or scornful; he can see things from their perspective; he respects Parliament and implicitly sees the politician’s calling as admirable. But he takes what they say with an affectionate pinch of salt — just as they take each others’ utterances with a pinch of salt. He is quick to spot a minister (or opposition spokesman) trying to dodge, and is unafraid to say so. Dimbleby’s approach often teases and sometimes upbraids, but never disparages the politician’s calling. He does not, by nature, belittle. To studio audiences and the wider audience he looks and feels like a political insider, but one who has placed himself at their service. And the panellists he sometimes scolds rarely take this badly. It goes without saying that one has not the least idea which if any party David Dimbleby would vote for — and I am not aware that there is anyone in Britain who knows. One can rarely guess his point of view. This is just the tone the Corporation needs to set: on the side of politics as a whole, not of individual politicians or parties.

But (you may say) granted all this, what has any of it to do with the post of chairman — neither a spokesman’s nor a mascot’s job? A chairman has to chair; to be able to read a balance sheet; to be an effective committee diplomat; and to be a good judge of people. All that I grant, but I have no reason to think Mr Dimbleby deficient on any of these counts. But if we are to suppose that a chairman of governors is not also the most senior public face of the Corporation, I wonder whether we might miss an asset for which there is a growing need. Will it be enough to replace Gavyn Davies with another tough-minded and capable but essentially behind-the-scenes figure, thought to be a good operator but neutral in broadcasting terms: a name and voice with no resonance among the BBC’s customers, the public? I doubt it.

The Corporation needs business experience, but it also needs at its head both an adjudicator and an ambassador: a faintly presidential figure who embodies what are thought to be the enduring values of the BBC. If such a person can be found, if politicians trust him, the Corporation’s staff respect him and the public like him, then such a figure would be well suited to steer the BBC through the charter renewal. In the period ahead the government will be well served neither by appearing to push the BBC board around, nor by a pitched battle with a chippy chairman. They should be seeking someone who respects ministers but is nobody’s pushover; and who himself commands respect and can sell change.

David Dimbleby will turn 66 this year. He should not anyway have been thinking of carrying on at Question Time much beyond the next general election. He may have one more service to perform in the worlds of both politics and broadcasting, and it could be his greatest.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.