Managing management 

4 May 2011 tbs.pm/1260

As the new chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten has wasted no time in signalling his future intentions, thereby abruptly drawing to a close an allegedly soft-touch Sir Michael Lyons era that had predominantly left director-general Mark Thompson to his own devices.

Of course there are distinct benefits in giving management the freedom to manage with minimal hindrance, but Lord Patten is politically smart enough to realise that this is no longer a viable option. BBC management may know that changes are inevitable, but they are no longer fully trusted by outsiders to make those changes themselves.

In his new role, Lord Patten somehow needs to bridge an ever-widening gulf between politicians and the BBC without further risking the corporation’s independence; a task already made tricky by existing anti-BBC elements of the media industry and will be made doubly difficult when News Corp get their hands on BSkyB as currently expected.

There have already been two traumatic licence fee settlements when originally it was thought that one would suffice; the first was conducted around the time Michael Grade jumped ship to ITV (a mere coincidence despite the awkward timing), and the second saw a licence fee freeze under a Tory-led coalition and a further round of cuts.

Making sense out of the BBC’s current situation should be top priority, and on paper Lord Patten seems to be a reasonably good choice for the job, being an experienced political operator who can bring an outsider’s touch to regulation whilst maintaining a proper perspective, and crucially someone who isn’t directly from a broadcasting background.

Distancing the Trust is another essential strategy, given all the mistrust that BBC management seems to have recently engendered amongst outsiders. The BBC Trust was recently saved from being axed mainly because nobody could think of a workable alternative, so the onus is now on Lord Patten to comprehensively prove this point.

There should certainly be a transparent future strategy for the corporation based on opportunity, real value and public trust as opposed to a recent policy of fumbling in the dark with a blunt axe. It’s now up to Lord Patten and the Trust to clear this path so that the rest of us can see exactly where the BBC is going.

As opposed to mere guesswork based on vague notions of “delivering quality first” – a useless suggestion when there have been no obvious public attempts to define that quality in the first place.