Lord Patten has been chairman of the BBC Trust for less than a year. But already he is starting to put his stamp on the publicly funded broadcaster.
The new chairman has certainly chucked aside the reticent approach that characterised his predecessor, Sir Michael Lyons. Not even the director-general has evaded his reforming eye. Lord Patten’s recent decision to call for the BBC to start succession planning took many insiders at the corporation, perhaps even Mark Thompson himself, by surprise. Mr Thompson, it later emerged, while in no great hurry to pack his bags, was “psychologically ready” to depart.
Lord Patten’s energy is welcome, as is his vision for the BBC. The corporation is a national treasure but it seeks to do too many things – not all of them well. This is partly the result of overstretch caused by Mr Thompson’s decision to seize the digital revolution as a chance to compete more broadly and on the international stage. The quest for “audience reach” has sometimes elbowed aside quality. The BBC needs to be more ambitious about the quality of its journalism and less concerned about competing with commercial rivals for Saturday evening ratings.
Mr Thompson has done a good job, not least in sorting out the financial overstretch bequeathed him by his predecessor, Greg Dyke. But Lord Patten is right to think about making a change.
The challenges for the corporation may get even tougher in coming years. The television industry is likely to face similar disruptive technological developments to those that have afflicted other content industries, such as film and music. True, the effect of these on the BBC might not be as swingeing as on other broadcasting rivals. But it will make the debate about the BBC’s guaranteed income more bitter, not less. A more modest corporation will also be a more defensible one.
Mr Thompson was a good chief executive for the good times. But his openhandedness with investment – and pay – has left the BBC in need of retrenchment. As the architect of the expansion, he may not be the right man to undertake the necessary pruning. Lord Patten plans to serve only one five-year term as chairman. To find and bed in Mr Thompson’s successor will take time. This will be a halcyon year for the corporation, with the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympics. It has been said that Mr Thompson had always planned to leave after the latter. It feels like a good moment.
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