It would be wrong to say that the BBC rode the roller coaster of highs and lows in 2012 and didn’t stumble away feeling slightly nauseated. The extreme highs of the unmatched Olympics coverage, the often overlooked radio coverage of the Paralympics, and the torch relay preceding the whole thing. The widely panned coverage of the Diamond Jubilee flotilla, labelled by many newspapers as “inane and tedious”, was in all fairness to the Beeb “inane and tedious”.
The closing few months of the year however brought the serious lows, the revelation of Jimmy Savile’s horrific past, some of which directly involved the BBC, the Lord McAlpine Newsnight report which seemed to deviate from some of the basic principles of investigative journalism, and of course the exit of George Entwistle from the Corporation after only fifty-four days as Director-General.
Despite the highs and lows of 2012, I worry that the BBC will punish itself too much as we go through 2013. The acting DG Tim Davie has done well to keep the Corporation steady during his short tenure and I’m sure he will continue to do so until Tony Hall takes over on 2nd April.
The BBC has been through a stream of major changes recently, many of which received bad press on their announcement and have since proved successful. The establishment of BBC North in Salford Quays and the move of many departments from Television Centre and White City in W12 to Broadcasting House in W1 have all worked out reasonably well so far, although less people are going to miss Television Centre now its reputation has been tarnished by the Savile scandal.
So when Tony Hall does take charge in April he will be at the helm of an institution much changed from the one he left in 2001, not to mention many of the operations he was instrumental in starting such as Radio 5 live, BBC News 24, BBC News Online and BBC Parliament, all of which have evolved no end since his departure.
Becoming the Director-General is arguably the most prestigious job in broadcasting, but the job must always remain bigger than the personality. DGs tend to only make a name for themselves when the death knell tolls. Entwistle’s brief but infamous tenure as DG was preceded by decades of exemplary service for the Corporation, which earned him as good as no press whatsoever.
Unlike any other broadcaster internationally (with comparable reach), public ownership means the BBC is in a privileged position to broadcast and publish its staff’s work at will, but remain almost immune when the same staff make a mistake. I honestly believe that the public’s trust in the BBC has been strengthened by the events of late last year. Most of that can be put down to the fact that the most painful and penetrating questioning and journalism surrounding the scandal came from the Corporation itself.
What the BBC needs now to progress is someone to fight its corner, not against the public, but against the press and against Parliament. As we get closer to 2016 the threat of a renegotiated charter and license fee settlement will be used by Government (from whatever side) as a stick to beat the BBC, and that should be the big worry for both it and the listening and viewing public.
Tony Hall’s main task as DG will be to convince the powers that be that publicly funded public service broadcasting is still worth paying for. He also needs to remind the public that the BBC is loved and trusted not solely because of its output, but also due to the fact it is owned and paid for by the public, and that Reith’s holy trinity of ‘Inform, Educate, and Entertain’ are just as pertinent today as they were in 1927.
Image Credit: Peter Crowther