Tim Davie has not even been the BBC’s director-general for a month but the UK broadcaster is already being thrown into another leadership battle, this time with a more existential edge.
Boris Johnson’s government will soon launch a process to nominate the BBC’s next chair, a position that the corporation’s charter states must be filled through “a fair and open competition” but in practice can be settled by the whim of the prime minister.
Reports that Mr Johnson is minded to tap Charles Moore, his former boss at the Daily Telegraph newspaper, have rattled senior figures in the BBC and Whitehall, who have told colleagues they are convinced it is more than just a Downing Street scare story.
The concern is not his notable record as a Fleet Street editor and Margaret Thatcher biographer, which earned him a peerage from Mr Johnson last month. It is that Lord Moore has waged a decade-long war on the BBC’s licence fee, which extended to a court punishing him with a £262 fine in 2010 for refusing to pay it.
He has compared the £3.5bn tax that funds the BBC to “compulsory tithes” for the church that forced people to pay for “a public religion whether they believed in it or not”. In one column for the Spectator magazine, he called the “human misery” caused by its enforcement as “worthy of the pen of Dickens”, a modern version of “wretches hang that jurymen may dine”.
Given these views, his appointment would be the most bracing gale of disruption in the BBC’s boardroom since Thatcher appointed Marmaduke Hussey as chair of the corporation in 1986. The former Grenadier Guard, who lost a leg in the war, saw the back of two directors-general and clashed with a third during an era of significant reform at the broadcaster.
Lord Moore has yet to indicate whether he is interested in the role. But one senior BBC figure said Lord Moore’s nomination would be a “statement of intent” from Downing Street of a similar kind. “Charles Moore is not just a commentator, and he is not just a Conservative,” he said. “He is [out] . . . to destroy an organisation.” A former BBC board member called it “a bad joke”.
BBC executives and allies of the corporation within Whitehall are banking on the formal selection process, which will start imminently with the publication of a job advert, helping to elevate alternative candidates.
Much depends on culture secretary Oliver Dowden, a former Downing Street aide who, people closely involved in the appointment believe, will gently steer the government towards a future-focused chair.
That longlist is likely to include private sector figures as well as former cabinet ministers such as Nicky Morgan, the former culture secretary, and George Osborne, the former chancellor and editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard. “Dowden knows the game,” said one person who has spoken to him about the process. One government insider expressed their “surprise” at seeing Lord Moore, a crossbench peer with no party affiliation, tipped as the preferred candidate.
The BBC states that board members “must at all times uphold and protect the independence of the BBC” including by “acting in the public interest, exercising independent judgment and neither seeking nor taking instructions from government ministers”.
The BBC must also be consulted on the “job specification, skills description and time commitment” before a process is launched to find a chair. Its advice has stressed the need for a candidate to commit to the existing BBC Charter, which guarantees the licence fee model of funding until at least 2027. The chair’s term runs to 2025.
Under the code for public appointments, the selection process is managed through an appointed panel, which vets and proposes “appointable candidates” — in no order of preference — to Mr Dowden. During the selection of David Clementi, the current chair, this involved the candidates sitting mock broadcast interviews on the BBC’s flagship radio news programme, Today.
But ultimately there is no insurmountable obstacle to the government, and notably the prime minister, overriding the formal process to make the appointment, regardless of the panel’s advice.
“Ministers may choose to appoint someone who is not deemed “appointable,” the code states.
A clue to the government’s preferred path may come in the job description for the chair and proposals, such as the government’s response to the decriminalisation of the licence fee, that are put out at the same time.
For all the despair within the corporation, some BBC veterans are convinced the race remains wide open. “I don’t believe the government has a candidate,” said Michael Grade, a former chair who described the position as “hugely important”. “There is a competition . . . watch the process.”
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published