The BBC needs downsizing: if Patten can't see it, he should go
Is the BBC too big to be manageable? Channel 4's output is just as highly rated and it is more adept at avoiding pitfalls
STANDING next to George Entwistle as he announced his resignation as Director General of the BBC on Saturday night, Lord Patten must have been wondering if he would be next to go. As chairman of the BBC Trust, Patten is not responsible for the corporation's day-to-day management, but he is supposed to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
What did for Entwistle was not just that Newsnight got it so disastrously wrong when it falsely accused a senior retired Tory politician – soon identified on Twitter as Lord McAlpine - of molesting boys at a North Wales children's home in the 1980s. His downfall was sealed when it became clear, for the second time in less than a month, that he had far too vague an idea of what was going on in his own organisation.
Yesterday there was no shortage of voices demanding to know what role other senior figures at the BBC had played in the debacle. In a series of interviews Patten did nothing to discourage the clamour. Yet at the same time, while he admitted that he had been aware of the Newsnight North Wales expose before it went out, he argued it was not for him to interfere.
Maybe, but in most organisations the chairman is supposed to advise, caution and, in extremis, restrain the chief executive. With the earlier Newsnight fracas over Jimmy Savile still raging, did he not at least warn his Director General to take extra care lest the BBC became embroiled in another firestorm?
And when, in the course of last week, it became apparent that McAlpine was strenuously denying ever having been to the children's home in question or having anything at all to do with it, did he talk to Entwistle then or let him drift on to his fate?
Patten cannot be exempted from the questions that will be asked of others involved in this latest BBC car crash. Even if he turns out not to have been asleep at the wheel, as one MP put it, it does not necessarily follow that he is the man to clear up the mess.
Yesterday he rejected calls for his resignation, saying he hoped to name a replacement for Entwistle within weeks, and would then turn his attention to giving the corporation a "structural overhaul". However, this would be done, he made clear, very much on the BBC's terms. Any notion that the organisation might work better if it were split into smaller components, as many outsiders have suggested, was dismissed as emanating from "the Murdoch press".
This does not augur well. Whether the BBC is now too big to be manageable is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed. The corporation is bureaucratic and slow for the same reason that most parts of the public sector are bureaucratic and slow; it is very large and responsible for billions of taxpayers' money. What marks it out, of course, is that unlike, say, the Home Office, it is a creative organisation.
The BBC's programmes – and particularly its news - are admired around the world for their integrity and excellence. Nobody wants it to lose these qualities, but this is the third big scandal after the David Kelly affair and the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand row to hit it in the last ten years. There is no other journalistic undertaking in the world that operates on its scale. It is surely reasonable to ask whether size is not at least a factor in its recent troubles.
The suggestion that breaking up the BBC would be an inevitable prelude to privatisation, often voiced by corporation insiders, is another canard – although privatising some parts of it might be no bad thing. Channel Four is 100 per cent publicly owned. It is much smaller than the BBC, but its output is as highly rated and it seems far more adept at avoiding pitfalls than its huge rival.
There could be a lesson there for Lord Patten, if he is willing to consider it. If he isn't, then we need a new broom. He himself has likened the way the BBC works to the Chinese Communist Party. Even with the former Governor of Hong Kong as its chairman, that is not a viable way to run a media organisation in an age when Twitter and the internet are rapidly making the established way of doing virtually everything in the industry obsolete.