Magazine article The Spectator

Is Mr Portillo the Man to Stop the BBC Getting Any Dumber?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is Mr Portillo the Man to Stop the BBC Getting Any Dumber?

Article excerpt

Who should be the next chairman of the BBC? Should it be Terry Burns, the former Treasury mandarin and chairman of Abbey National? Or Michael Grade, the former chief executive of Channel 4? Or Michael Portillo? Their names are believed to be among the 79 people who have applied for the chairmanship. A great deal of lobbying is taking place. Two of the candidates set out their stalls last weekend at a conference of British and Italian journalists and politicians held at the Palazzo Labia in Venice.

Lord Burns was not there in person, but was represented by his chief sponsor and supporter on earth, John Birt, director-general of the BBC from 1992 until 2000. The two men are old pals. They have been on walking holidays together - oddly enough in the company of Robin Butler, the chap who is conducting the inquiry into intelligence failures and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Lords Birt, Burns and Butler last dined together (so it was reported by the London Evening Standard) on 27 February at the high table of University College, Oxford, where Lord Butler is Master. Lord Birt is a 'strategy adviser' to the Prime Minister and, although his brief does not include the media, he is doing what he can to advance the cause of his old mate, Lord Burns. He may be pushing on an open door. Tony Blair will chose the next chairman of the BBC partly on the advice of the Culture secretary, Tessa Jowell. Quite apart from the support he enjoys from Lord Birt, Lord Burns is probably the favoured candidate of Ms Jowell, having been appointed by her last September to act as an 'independent adviser' to the review of the BBC's charter and licence fee.

Lord Birt is not everybody's cup of tea, but I must say that what he said made a lot of sense. If Lord Burns shares his friend's views, he might not be a bad chairman. Lord Birt's point, in a debate about public service broadcasting which he introduced, was that broadcasters including the BBC have dumbed down. ITV had dispensed with nearly all its highbrow programmes. Channel 4 was 'ever more commercially focused'. The BBC itself 'had not been immune' and had 'slipped off the public service rails'. It was sometimes 'ratings obsessed' and should have 'a greater purity of purpose'. All this, of course, was a not particularly veiled attack on the regime of the previous BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, and its previous director-general, Greg Dyke, both of whom resigned after the recent Hutton report. According to Lord Birt, the BBC needs to re-affirm its public service values. The implication was that such a re-affirmation would give the BBC a greater chance of maintaining the licence fee from 2006, though in any event, in a world of multiplying digital channels, the Corporation would have to come to terms with a gradually shrinking audience.

Sitting not far from Lord Birt was Michael Portillo, whose once vulpine features now appear almost beatific. Let me digress a little about Mr Portillo. The previous afternoon the conference had discussed the euro, and while not actually disavowing his opposition to it (which was once so extreme that John Major called him a 'bastard'), Mr Portillo showed a new broadmindedness. His main point, repeated several times, was that Tony Blair had lost influence in Europe, and had been unable to play the leadership role that would otherwise have been open to him, because Britain had stayed outside the euro. …

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