Applications for an impossible job now open
Only a candidate with the innovative skills of Galileo and the political artistry of Machiavelli has any hope of becoming the next director general of the BBC, writes Raymond Snoddy
Wanted: someone to take on an impossible job, where relative failure and continuous controversy and criticism are all givens, as are unprecedented, intensifying levels of competition and political interference.
At the same time, some think the organisation has rather lost its way in recent years in search for a spurious balance. The long list of problems includes question marks over future funding and even the purpose of the organisation, plus embarrassing and only partially resolved issues of historic gender pay discrimination, the young turning their back on the offering and accusations of mistreating pensioners over the age of 75.
Ideally the successful man or woman - woman preferred if that is at all possible - would combine the innovative skills of a Galileo with the political artistry of a Machiavelli. A dash of charisma would also not go amiss.
The salary will absolutely not be competitive and will almost certainly be considerably less than half that of any equivalent job in the private sector and every taxi you or your staff take will be rigorously scrutinised by the Daily Mail on a daily basis.
Perhaps the only comparable challenge in the UK is becoming leader of the Labour Party after four lost general elections with even less of an idea about what to do next.
Despite all of the above, there will be numerous applications for the post of director-general of the BBC, in succession to Lord Tony Hall who is off to the peaceful, unpaid waters of the National Gallery to chair its board of Trustees.
Symbolically the new director-general will be taking over just as Disney+ launches in the UK, fresh from its triumph in the US, to add to the competition for eyeballs from the assorted ranks of the international streamers.
It will inevitably mean another leak of viewing at the margins for the UK’s public service broadcasters, because Disney+ will probably also be popular in the UK - at least among families with young children.
The potentially good news for broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 is that there will not be a limitless appetite for adding more and more monthly subscription fees to the domestic bill for television.
The new chorus line of streamers will increasingly compete against each other and Netflix - latest global subscription total 167 million – in particular.
Not everyone wants to keep paying more and more for streamed television and Freeview Play impressively finished the year with nearly 7 million users.
Apart from Sky, BT and Virgin we will probably see the new norm developing of “average” subscribing homes taking on two additional streamers, Netflix and one other. Somehow Britbox has to force its way into that crowded international field.
The new director-general will have to cope with the problems traditional public service broadcasters face all over Europe and it is difficult to underestimate the scale of the challenge.
They will, however, face something quite new and potentially malevolent – a right-wing Conservative government with a large majority hell bent on reining in, as they see it, a BBC viscerally hostile to the social transformation of a UK outside the European Union.
There have been political rows in the past involving both Labour and Conservative governments, although Labour has traditionally been more sympathetic to the BBC as a social and cultural institution and its licence fee funding.
Unless the Government sets aside as election time bluster some of the things said during the campaign, then we are in unchartered territory – a malicious government apparently determined to undermine a key British institution as it approaches its centenary year of 2022.
When above all a period of stability is needed, there is more than a danger that a Boris Johnson government will move towards an unnecessary period of self-generated disruption.
During the election Johnson said the BBC should “cough up the money” to fund free licence fees for the over-75s - apparently neither knowing nor caring that “coughing up” would cost £750 million a year rising to £1 billion, with a catastrophic effect on services, or that the BBC was given the problematic “right” to chose what to do about such licence fees by the last Conservative government.
Even more sinister is the decision to ban government ministers from appearing on Radio 4's Today programme with its 7 million listeners and possibly extend the ban to Newsnight because it has chosen to hire a journalist disliked by Number 10.
This is already the stuff of banana republics but it gets much worse.
The level of licence fee is due to be reviewed in two years, but not the principle of the licence fee itself, which will be a central issue when the current BBC Charter runs out in 2027.
The BBC will be planning to try to make a case for an increase in funding in 2022 on the perfectly sensible grounds that it is in UK’s best interests to fund properly one of the country’s most successful industries.
What if Johnson goes instead for the simplistic and destructive crowd pleaser of reducing the licence fee, or at the very least freezing it?
In the mid-term it gets worse. Johnson, who could easily get elected for a second five year term, could abolish the licence fee and turn the BBC into just another subscription service among many, the most certain way to diminish its impact and influence.
Tony Hall’s decision to leave now means that the next director-general will be appointed during the watch of the current chairman Sir David Clementi - who, like Hall, has been a force for continuity, stability and reasoned innovation.
The latest alarming threat to come out of Downing Street is that the government will ensure the next director-general will be sacked if an “unsuitable” candidate is appointed.
They can certainly do that because unlike the director-general, who is chosen by the BBC board, the government chooses the chairman.
It is necessary to ask again and again – has such crude and ugly political interference in the affairs of the BBC ever happened since the days of Churchill and the General Strike? Even Conservative supporters should be alarmed.
It’s impossible to say who will be the next BBC director-general but this is no time for showy outsiders and they will have to know about international broadcasting, commerce, the ways of the BBC and current state of British politics – gender irrelevant.
Almost by a process of elimination the last person standing could be Tim Davie, chief executive of BBC Studios, who wisely turned down the top job at the Premier League.
The key appointment is going to be that of the next BBC chairman and the Government moves to put in their man or woman.
If age is not a barrier they could easily turn to experienced broadcaster David Elstein who will just miss out on his free licence this year.
Elstein has spent half a lifetime arguing for the abolition of the licence fee, and he is that rare beast in the world of broadcasting – a Brexit supporter.