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November 15, 2012

Expert View: How Lord Patten can Restore the BBC's Reputation

By Spear's

Ross Gow, managing partner of Acuity Reputation, discusses how Lord Patten can best solve the BBC’s reputational problems

APPEARING ON THE Andrew Marr Show to discuss the resignation of the hapless George Entwistle and to evaluate its fallout, Lord Patten of Barnes appeared to concede that the BBC is indeed mired in its own omnishambles and that it was inevitably under pressure as a result.

A decent start, with a whiff of humility – but he then opened another flank – igniting a media war while defending the BBC’s independence, suggesting that the Corporation was ‘bound to be under fire from Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers’ and sceptical (Tory) MPs. Less good – the briefest glimpse at Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, would have suggested that this approach was overly-bombastic.
To save his personal reputation and that of a previously much-cherished organisation, Lord Patten would be well-advised to consider focusing solely on the matter in hand. In addition to his £110,000 BBC salary, Patten earns around £200,000 from other posts, including the Chancellorship of Oxford University. How can such a plural potentate concentrate on a wholly dysfunctional organisation’s woes when he is juggling so many other lucrative commitments? 

But it makes little sense for the former Governor of Hong Kong and one-time Conservative Party Treasurer to leave the stage at this moment. He is a passionate believer in public service broadcasting and he is tough, experienced and subtle enough to fight its corner. He must stay and see the crisis through.

With a £5 billion budget, multiple television and radio channels, more journalists in the aggregate than all of Fleet Street, the sprawling organisation is clearly too bloated and amorphous to function smoothly. Patten and the BBC Trust should consider selling off its non-essential functions and de-layering its vast swathe of ‘suits’ – the bureaucrats, managers and diversity commissars.

Lord Patten on the Andrew Marr Show

With no small measure of schadenfreude from some observers, Entwistle’s demise was hastened by his inability to handle aggressive media interviews and to remain steady under fire. But whoever is at the top has to be able to handle the media and accept vicarious liability for the actions of the wider team.

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The BBC must now dust itself off and get back in the saddle, finding a new Director-General who is capable of being a media front man as well as managing the huge national institution. The BBC Trust, (ie the taxpayer), has already paid Egon Zehnder £223,200 to find an internal candidate who lasted only a matter of weeks and who was clearly untouched by ‘the right stuff’.

Patten was ill-advised to sanction a double-sized payoff for a man who had been in the top job for only 54 days, but although he might believe in dispensing with formal competition for the role, merely re-advertising the post would leave the BBC without a leader until after Christmas, delaying reforms to restore public confidence.

The BBC brand has been damaged in its core area of excellence – news and current affairs. Patten needs to order and construe a detailed analysis about the extent to which the present crisis was caused by resources, structures, or human error.

This week, the BBC is celebrating its 90th anniversary. As it struggles to rebuild its reputation, it needs a radical overhaul of its culture as well. Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ played as he handed back Hong Kong to the Chinese – the Chairman of the BBC Trust has a difficult and unenviable few months ahead, but clearly has pride in Britain and her assets.

The Newsnight scandal should be used as an opportunity for the kind of fundamental change that will ensure the future of what is still a much-loved institution, for the rest of the 21st century. 
Ross Gow is managing partner of Acuity Reputation

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