The next director-general of the BBC will face the sack unless they embrace major reforms, Downing Street warned last night.
In an unprecedented intervention, No 10 sources said Boris Johnson is ready to act if the Corporation chooses an ‘unsuitable’ successor to Tony Hall.
Last night BBC grandee David Dimbleby said any suggestion the Government might influence who got the director-general’s job was ‘outrageous’. He warned any such interference would make the Corporation ‘seem to be a servant of the Government’.
Tony Hall introducing the first episode of Top Gear series 28 in London on Monday, the day he announced he is stepping down as BBC Director General two years earlier than planned
Lord Hall announced on Monday he is stepping down two years earlier than planned. It means that the next director-general will be chosen under current BBC chairman Sir David Clementi rather than his successor – who is due to be appointed by the Government in February next year. This has prompted allegations of a ‘stitch-up’ by the BBC designed to prevent the Prime Minister having any influence.
A senior No 10 source said the new chairman would be expected to fire any director-general opposed to reform. The source said: ‘We are concerned about reports of a “BBC stitch up” to select the new director-general. Obviously the first task of any new chairman would be to remove an unsuitable director-general immediately.’
The PM’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings led a think-tank that in 2004 called for the ‘end of the BBC in its current form’. In a blog, the now-closed New Frontiers Foundation proposed ‘the creation of a Fox News equivalent’ and said the BBC’s credibility needed undermining, the Guardian reported. It suggested ministers should avoid Radio 4’s Today programme – now an informal Downing Street policy.
Mr Johnson is said to want the BBC to appoint a chief who is ‘open and enthusiastic’ about reform in areas including the provision of free TV licences for the over-75s, decriminalisation of the licence fee and consideration of new funding models.
The PM’s official spokesman said yesterday that a decision on Lord Hall’s successor was ‘a matter for the BBC’ but confirmed that Mr Johnson expects the new DG to review the decision to scrap free licences. A Government source warned that the new director-general would need to oversee a ‘reset’ at the BBC as it has become ‘out of kilter with the electorate’ on issues ranging from Brexit to immigration.
However Dimbleby, the former host of Question Time and BBC election coverage, said: ‘It would be outrageous and quite improper if the Government tried to influence the choice of director-general.
BBC grandee David Dimbleby (pictured) last night said any suggestion the Government might influence who got the director-general’s job was ‘outrageous’
‘It is very important to keep that clear, not just for the sake of this country but worldwide, that the BBC is not an instrument of Government, but independent of it. The Government has no role at all and no right to interfere in the choice of director-general.’
Dimbleby, 81, said the BBC chairman should quit if the Government tries to get involved.
‘I think the public are more on the side of the BBC, for all its faults, than of the Government,’ he said.
One slip from the Beeb’s new chief could destroy it forever
By John Simpson BBC World Affairs Editor for the Daily Mail
It’ll probably be May before we know who’s got the job of the BBC’s next director-general. Whoever it is, they’ll have the BBC’s future in their hands. And a single slip could see the entire, seemingly tough – yet actually rather fragile – outfit crash to the ground in a thousand pieces.
Would it matter? A lot of people, more now than ever before, will say ‘no’. But as a BBC lifer – I joined as a junior sub-editor in 1966, and have worked in the news department ever since – you’ll forgive me if I say I think it does matter immensely.
For almost a century it has done a pretty good job of enlightening us, informing us and entertaining us. The BBC has helped to make us who we are as a nation.
It has provided us with a daily, hourly picture of ourselves and our world. There can scarcely be a man, woman or child in the entire United Kingdom who hasn’t been affected by its broadcasting.
Playing hard ball: Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings leaves Number 10 yesterday, after attending a Cabinet meeting
It enrages all of us from time to time (me included), but those who can see the wider picture tend to support it as an institution, even when there are aspects of it that they don’t like.
The new BBC boss will be faced with a variety of problems greater than any previous DG has had to deal with. One of them is the undeniable fact that the widespread support the BBC has always relied on has been affected by the two hugely divisive issues we’ve faced over the past few years: Scottish independence and Brexit.
The middle ground which the BBC had always inhabited suddenly disappeared; where, after all, is the middle ground between independence or remaining in the United Kingdom, or between staying in the EU or leaving it?
People who had previously been perfectly rational started to detect bias in everything, from the tone of voice in a news bulletin to the audiences for Question Time. It didn’t seem to matter that roughly similar numbers of people were detecting exactly the opposite bias at exactly the same time.
Last month’s election made it even worse. Corbynistas were certain the BBC was obeying the instructions of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) to destroy their man, at the very moment when CCHQ was incandescent at the BBC for what it saw as the Corporation’s anti-Tory bias.
Again and again, our presenters were accused of being unfair to one side or another, and we were regularly told we had failed to question the claims of the various parties. That was demonstrably untrue, since after the 2016 referendum the BBC set up a highly effective fact-checking department which broadcast its conclusions on a regular basis, and published them on the BBC’s hugely popular website.
But if people want to believe something, reality doesn’t seem to stop them.
Personally, I’m not a great supporter of the argument that if you’re upsetting everyone you must be getting it about right.
All the same, you might hope that people who believe the BBC is cravenly obeying the will of the government might notice that other people are just as loud in claiming that the BBC is totally biased against the government.
So the first thing the next director-general will have to do is to rebuild its reputation for balance and neutrality. But there will be other pressing problems. Lord Hall is standing aside because he thinks the same person should negotiate the next BBC Charter, from 2027 onwards, and the upcoming licence fee deal.
Those are going to be two very difficult subjects, and there’s no doubt that Boris Johnson, with his chief of staff Dominic Cummings whispering in his ear, is going to want to seem ultra-tough on the licence fee in particular. Many of the new Tory MPs taking their seats at Westminster are likely to be more populist and hard-line than their predecessors, and public support for the licence-fee has been dropping fast.
There will be a great deal of horse-trading, playing off the licence fee against details of the next Charter, and the new director-general will have to keep his or her nerve. But what sort of BBC should emerge from all this? I suspect it will have to concentrate on its core activities – news, current affairs, factual programming, music for all tastes, high-quality series like The Trial of Christine Keeler and Fleabag – while letting Netflix and the other British channels concentrate on other entertainment.
My guess is that the licence fee will continue at a lower level – most other European countries have something like it, after all – but that people who want more than the basics will have to pay a top-up fee to watch them, much as they do with Sky or Netflix.
The ace in the new director-general’s hand will surely be that no government will want to go down in history as the one that destroyed the BBC.
Remember, 2022 will be the hundredth anniversary of the Corporation’s establishment, and any incoming director-general can be expected to play this up for all it’s worth, showcasing for months on end how good the BBC has genuinely been over the years, and reminding us all how much we’ve got from it.
Around the world, the BBC’s reputation has rarely been higher – its audiences are just under half a billion now, and growing fast. It would be very foolish indeed to do too much damage to something as valuable as this.
In the years when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, it was my job to follow her around the world. She would often sound off against the BBC, at press conferences or when I interviewed her. But she never forgot that most British people supported it.
Immediately after her third election victory in 1987, I doorstepped her in front of a crowd of young Tories chanting: ‘Privatise the BBC!’ After asking her a couple of questions, I said: ‘These people want you to privatise the BBC. You can do it now. Will you?’
‘Well, I think –’ she began, then said: ‘Oh look, there’s Dennis. I must go and join him.’ That’s it, I thought – she won’t do it, and she never really intended to.
However radical Dominic Cummings wants to be now, I suspect that Boris Johnson’s gut political instincts will mean he stops short of doing anything too damaging to the BBC. But that doesn’t mean the next director-general won’t have a pretty torrid time.
And I’m pretty sure that the BBC which takes shape after 2027 will be different – and quite a lot smaller – than the one all of us have known, all our lives.