The gaps in Sir David Clementi's knowledge

18 Jan 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The gaps in Sir David Clementi's knowledge

Following the appointment of Sir David Clementi as the new chairman of the BBC, Raymond Snoddy wonders whether the former banker needs to do a bit of extra homework before sinking his teeth into the job

There's something about politicians which makes them instant experts on television - even though they hardly ever actually watch the programmes.

They seem to know about the finer points about scheduling, where the main evening news should go and whether or not the BBC should play its most popular programmes at prime time on Saturday evenings.

We must now add bankers to the list of those experts who apparently have the ability to absorb the finer points of television by osmosis rather than experience or knowledge.

In the end we all end up thinking that we are experts on television so maybe it's not surprising that naturally this theory also applies to former deputy governors of the Bank of England.

Sir David Clementi, the new chairman of the BBC's unified board of management - the very structure he advocated in a report for the Government - clearly knows his onions when it comes to food programmes on television and much more besides including news, journalism and the meaning of impartiality and objectivity.

Sir David delivered very firm opinions on the Great British Bake-Off when he appeared before the Commons Media Select Committee in what has become a British form of confirmation hearings.

It would be very disappointing if the BBC decided to produce a "copycat" baking show following Channel 4's £75 million three-year deal for the BBC's former top-rated programme, he argued.

Well yes indeed, Sir David, it would be a clear breach of Love Production's intellectual property if a copycat show was cooked up by the BBC, but if he wants to intervene in baking matters the new chairman of the BBC should be encouraging the BBC's programme makers to come up with an imaginative new and legal format for what is essentially a generic idea.

In passing there is an unconfirmed rumour doing the rounds that it was the BBC which alerted Channel 4 to the availability of Bake-Off which might otherwise have been heading towards Netflix - but that could be a fake story made up in Macedonia.

Sir David, as seems to happen with bankers and politicians, also has strong views on reality shows, particularly when they are shown in prime time on Saturday evenings.

The former chairman of Prudential insurance sniffed that Let It Shine wasn't a new concept but conceded rather patronisingly that at least it was "quite warm-hearted".

The fact that the financier acknowledged that there were some gaps in his knowledge of the television industry didn't stop him adding: "We need to allow it a few more Saturdays before making a judgement and see how Gary (Barlow) brings it together."

Have we missed something here? Has the role of chairman and director of programmes been integrated too?

Perhaps more problematical are Sir David's views on news and objectivity.

According to The Times, Sir David told the Committee that he would ask for "scientific" research to ensure that BBC coverage remained scrupulously impartial.

Scientific research would be a fine thing indeed - if such a thing existed.

There is little doubt that Sir David will prove to be an interventionalist handful for the under-pressure executives of the BBC"

One of the gaps in Sir David's knowledge may be the history of such attempts, usually by right-wingers trying to use stop-watches to prove the BBC was hopelessly left-wing.

Then there is the science of textual analysis, never mind the philosophy of trying to work out whether impartiality is a useful concept or even whether such a thing can ever possibly exist.

We can only look forward to Sir David's first scientific report on impartiality - something that almost always depends on subjective judgement - with warm-hearted anticipation.

The new chairman also wants a report into the Corporation's post-referendum coverage as he puts "impartiality, independence and accuracy" at the top of his agenda.

Yes indeed, but at the same time, and more centrally, he might also call for a report - scientific or otherwise - into the BBC's pre-referendum coverage, which many think adhered too dogmatically to an inadequate definition of impartiality.

It was the sort of impartiality which in news bulletins balanced up the considered views of dozens of Nobel prize winners with the dismissive piffle emerging from Boris Johnson.

But it's great to know that in Sir David Clementi we not only have an expert in finance and constructing convenient regulatory frameworks for public service broadcasters, but also in popular programmes, news and current affairs - and sport.

On sport Sir David, an Oxford blue in athletics, is on the side of the angels when he calls for additions to the "crown jewel" list of sporting events, which are protected for showing on terrestrial television.

It is a personal regret to me, that the new BBC chairman said that the Open golf tournament is not free on the BBC rather than on Sky.

If Sir David can persuade the Government to add to the list more power to his elbow - though he is not likely to go down well with sports organisations losing wads of money as a result.

Apart from being such an expert on television, despite never having worked in it, Sir David is obviously an establishment figure but not just any old establishment figure but one that extends across the generations.

His father Cresswell was an Air Vice-Marshall in the RAF. His grandfather was governor of Hong Kong and his great-grandfather the Italian-born English composer Muzio Clementi.

So the BBC orchestras are probably safe for the time being but old Muzio might be getting a few more outings at the BBC Proms in future.

There is little doubt that Sir David will prove to be an interventionalist handful for the under-pressure executives of the BBC and there is a danger he will have a taste for raising money by selling bits off.

He is proud of the fact that he was heavily involved in persuading the Bank of England to out-source its banknote printing role.

There are worries already that after he is finished with Bake-Off, Let It Shine and scientific reports on impartiality he will turn his attention to trying to sell BBC Worldwide or the BBC’s production arm BBC Studios.

Both are deeply integrated into the BBC and it would be a huge mistake to sell either. They are not the same as banknotes and as Sir David admitted there are still some gaps in his knowledge about broadcasting.

Worldwide and Studios are areas where he needs to do some extra homework.

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JimConvey, Media advisor, Independent on 18 Jan 2017
“This is an uncharacteristically cheap shot. I think we can assume Clementi's comments on Saturday night TV at the committee were tongue in cheek. Apart from that, I don't see anything here which isn't fair game for the incoming Chairman of the BBC - he's not commenting on individual editorial matters, but how the BBC handles its editorial decision-making in the interests of diversity and distinctiveness. The idea that you need to have worked in TV for 20 years to have a sensible view on whether the BBC's commissioning processes and criteria are appropriate is the kind of self-serving garbage you'd normally expect from the BBC itself.”

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