Lord Patten quits BBC and gives headache to all concerned

Neither Downing St nor Auntie want to address the sticky licence fee question on the eve of an election

The Mole
(Image credit: Chris Radburn/AFP/Getty Images)

FORMER Pearson boss Marjorie Scardino is being tipped to replace Chris Patten, whose departure as chairman of the BBC Trust has already sparked renewed debate over the future of the BBC and landed the newly appointed Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, with his first major challenge.

But would Scardino want a job that many observers call a poisoned chalice – and which might be scrapped before too long anyway?

The departure of Lord Patten a year earlier than planned after heart by-pass surgery could not have come at a worse time for David Cameron.

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Renewal of the licence fee is not due until 2016. But the need to fill this high-profile role – the Trust represents the licence-payers' interests - means addressing the issue now.

Most Tories, Cameron included, would like to see the licence fee come way down from its current £145.50 a year - which would mean cutting content - and the bloated BBC establishment reduced, too. Some believe that in the age of TV on the internet it's time to scrap the charge altogether.

But while few would complain about a reduced fee, 'Auntie' remains a national treasure in the eyes of much of the electorate and the lead-up to a general election is not the best time to debate the extent to which the old dear should be dismantled.

It's a headache, too, for the BBC which would much rather not have to deal with the charges of left-wing bias and exorbitant pay packets just when it's about to cover a general election.

As Steve Hewlett, the media consultant, said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning: "This puts a spanner in the works and raises the prospect of something precisely the BBC was trying to avoid – a highly politicised appointment just before the general election."

The Beeb will also need to get used to reading many more press articles along the lines of today's in the Daily Mail in which Stephen Glover calls for Patten's departure to trigger a comprehensive government review of the corporation: “It [the BBC] has to confront charges of bias, especially in its reporting of Europe and immigration. In fact, a thorough-going review of the future of the BBC is required.”

Actually, a parliamentary review of the BBC and the licence renewal is already under way by the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, chaired by Tory right-winger John Whittingdale, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher. But, of course, the committee wasn't expecting Patten to stand down and make it a live issue right now.

What Cameron and Javid are likely to do is attempt to defuse the situation by seeking a “caretaker” Trust chairman to get them through the election without the BBC turning into a political battleground.

Downing Street is thought to want a proven business leader who can knock some sense into the corporation – something Patten, a career politician, fell short on.

Just look at the catalogue of blunders under his chairmanship - the alleged cover-up over the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal; the Newsnight debacle over false allegations of sex abuse against the late Lord McAlpine; the appointment of George Entwistle as Director-General, who lasted only 54 days; and the stink raised by pay-outs of £1 million to departing senior executives.

Downing Street is also thought to favour a woman – which is why the hot favourite being tipped by BBC sources and The Guardian is Marjorie Scardino, former CEO of Pearson, which owns the Financial Times and has stakes in Penguin Random House and The Economist. In 2007, she came 17th in the Forbes list of the world's most powerful women.

Possible male candidates are led by the former Sony boss, Sir Howard Stringer.

Javid, who took up his post only last month, will oversee the selection process before an appointment is approved by the Prime Minister and given royal assent.

But here's the catch: once the election is over and the big BBC rethink is underway, it's very possible there will be no place for the BBC Trust. The new chairman's main job might well be to pull the carpet away from underneath themselves – hardly an attractive proposition.

In the short term, the Trust is due to publish a review of BBC News this week which will rekindle the row over the failures of Newsnight and the subsequent inquiry by Nick Pollard.

Presenter Jeremy Paxman – who has announced he will retire from Newsnight in the summer – fuelled the demands for reform when he told The Guardian there were things about the "smug" BBC that he loathed.

"When I see people being given £1m merely for walking out of the door," he said, "when I see £100m being blown on that DMI [digital media initiative] thing, a stupid technical initiative like that, I start wondering: how much longer are we going to test the public's patience?”

Sajid Javid may be left wondering if the fates are against him. Former Culture Secretary Maria Miller would have been landed with the exploding BBC parcel in her lap, but she was forced to quit over her expenses claims.

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