Analysis: Jubilee coverage could affect pick of new DG
- 10 June 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
The furore over the BBC's coverage of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee has come at a critical time for the handful of executives hoping to become the corporation's next director general.
As interviews begin for one of the biggest jobs in public life, the candidates must surely expect to be asked what they thought of the Diamond Jubilee coverage as a whole - and the river pageant in particular - and how well the BBC responded to its critics.
Some believe such questions go to the heart of the director general's job. The BBC is publicly funded and publicly accountable. Its director general must expect the corporation to be judged on the way it covers huge public events such as the Diamond Jubilee, and to be taken to task if people think it gets it wrong. They must also expect that debate to be aired not just in the press (which is often hostile to the BBC) but on the corporation's own programmes.
On Radio 4's Today programme last week, Evan Davis summed up the main criticism of the river pageant coverage: "The BBC opted not to give it the Dimbleby treatment, but to make it more of a One Show-type event - leading many to think it was too light, with too little about the ships themselves."
No-one from the BBC would take part in the discussion which followed. The director general Mark Thompson praised the output in an email to staff, but the corporation later acknowledged that "not every aspect of our coverage was to everyone's taste".
Dan Sabbagh in the Guardian was not impressed by the BBC's response. "In this situation, it is easy to argue that the BBC cannot win. But it is the corporation's attitude to the inevitable criticism that is often as important: on this occasion, the BBC has been slow to defend itself, reluctant to admit any error at all, while would-be leaders are nowhere to be seen."
So what impact, if any, will this have on the choice of the next director general?
According to The Times, it has "blown the race wide open", damaging the chances of those candidates associated with the programme and those with limited editorial experience.
But the Observer quotes the former BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland as saying: "The idea that it should have any bearing on who should be the next director general is laughable. We are not talking about appointing a football manager. No single programme can ever decide who becomes the next director general."
Even so, when the candidates are interviewed by the BBC chairman Lord Patten and other members of the BBC Trust, it would be surprising if they weren't asked for their assessment of the weekend's output. If not, it would be a pretty big elephant in the room, a looming presence not addressed. And the question gives the candidates a good chance to describe their vision for the BBC - and how it should respond to licence-payers if significant coverage is judged to have gone wrong.
The BBC has an army of talent it can deploy on occasions such as the Diamond Jubilee weekend. Some critics said the pageant cried out to be covered by the Dimblebys, David and Jonathan, others that it needed historians such as Dan Snow, or father Peter. Where were Andrew Marr, John Simpson and Nick Robinson, asked some journalists?
Others point out that the BBC must serve the whole UK population, reflecting the views and interests of people of all ages, backgrounds and parts of the country. They say it can be popular and entertaining, without dumbing down, as it has demonstrated in its award-winning science, drama and history programming.
There's a natural tension at the BBC, as Neil Midgley pointed out in the Daily Telegraph, "between entertainment and news, between serious and showbiz, and between grey hair and blonde..."
The BBC Trust needs to know how the next director general would handle that tension.