George Entwistle may or may not have made a good director general of the BBC. He took over from the maverick Mark Thompson, who had wreaked havoc across the BBC with his Delivering Quality First cuts. Entwistle might just have provided a steady pair of hands to guide the BBC and rebuild its confidence after the Thompson era. But coping with the Savile crisis proved beyond him and his fate became inevitable.
Now vultures are circling above Lord Patten’s head. As chairman of the BBC Trust, Patten is the man that appointed Entwistle and gave him an eye-boggling payoff for failing to do the job. These errors are excuse enough for demanding his resignation, but there are important reasons why Chris Patten should be allowed to ride out the storm.
Patten is not a BBC man. He is a former politician and astute diplomat. From my perspective, he showed his mettle during the campaign to save BBC local radio last year. Mark Thompson’s proposal for swingeing cuts to local broadcasting was met with a storm of protest from listeners and MPs, including from Lib Dem president Tim Farron, an ardent supporter of BBC Radio Cumbria. But despite their anger, listeners struggled to get their get their voice heard.
The BBC Trust showed itself to be inept at communication and engagement. The BBC’s chief operating officer Caroline Thomson and news chief Helen Boaden revealed themselves to be disinterested in what happened to local radio. Coverage of the cuts on local radio itself was tightly controlled and constrained. The manager of local radio, David Holdsworth, even boasted that 20% cuts would improve local radio.
The BBC was given a rough ride over the cuts – a testimony to the thousands of listeners that protested, the MPs that spoke up in the Commons, and local radio teams that got debate going despite the reluctance of their bosses. It is also testimony to the man that got listeners’ voices heard and the man who listened to those voices.
The man who got listeners’ voices heard was Roger Bolton, the droll, witty presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Feedback. His broadcasts ensured that the concerns of local radio supporters were heard deep within the management bunker at Broadcasting House.
The man who listened was Chris Patten. He showed that he understands that BBC local radio is a champion of our local communities; that it cares for us and helps our communities care for themselves. He knows that when things go wrong in a crisis, local radio helps communities cope, cry and recover. He ordered the cuts to be halved.
Lord Patten has consistently shown sensitivity to the needs of audiences rather than an obsession with ratings. He has championed the BBC’s role as a beacon of quality and standards at the centre of UK cultural life. If he is forced to go by the media hue and cry the BBC be rudderless. It will also lose the best champion it has of those core values that too many director generals have forgotten.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Ludlow, Shropshire. He writes on communities, planning, the environment and history.