The politics of the next BBC director-general
As the BBC advertises in the Guardian today for a new director-general, it’s worth examining the politics, or possible politics, of the runners and riders. Indeed, it seems to be a rather more political field than usual.
Perhaps the most politically connected is Caroline Thomson, the current chief operating officer of the BBC, whose background is very tied up in the last 40 years of Labour-SDP-Lib Dem politics, and staunchly pro-European. She’s the daughter of the late Lord George Thomson, who having edited the Dandy comic in his youth, became a Labour MP and a middle-ranking minister in Harold Wilson’s 1960s government.
George Thomson was a close ally of Roy Jenkins, and in 1973 became one of Britain’s first two European Commissioners. On his return to Britain, and after running the Independent Broadcasting Authority, he joined the Social Democrats and followed them into the subsequent Liberal Democrats. Caroline, meanwhile, in 1982 became personal assistant to Roy Jenkins, when he was the first SDP leader.
In 1983 Caroline Thomson married Roger Liddle, who’d been a ministerial special adviser to Jim Callaghan’s Transport Minister, Bill Rodgers, another of the SDP Gang of Four, and joined to exodus to the SDP. Liddle remained close to Peter Mandelson, however, wrote a book with him, and rejoined the Labour Party. He was Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair on European matters, and later joined Mandelson’s cabinet when he was a European Commissioner. He subsequently became principal economic adviser to the EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. In 2010 Liddle was appointed a Labour peer.
On top of all that, Caroline Thomson’s sister Ailsa, a vicar, is married to the Liberal Democrat peer Dick Newby (another former senior SDP official).
Anyway, there’s not much Euroscepticism in Thomson’s background.
None of that might be a problem if the BBC chairman weren’t Chris Patten, who may be of a different party from the Thomson clan – a Conservative – but he too has strong pro-European connections, having also spent four years in Brussels as a member of the European Commission. Given persistent accusations from UKIP and the Tory right that the BBC is too pro-EU, could a former European Commissioner, appoint to the top BBC job, the daughter of another European Commissioner, who is also the wife of a former adviser to two more EU Commissioners? Yes, he could, but not without some political fuss.
The personal political connections of the Director of BBC News, Helen Boaden, are feeble in comparison. Her brother, Mike Boaden, is a councillor in Carlisle, and used to lead the Labour group on the city council. In the 2010 general election, he fought Carlisle. And, as they say, Carlisle fought back. It had been a Labour seat since 1964, but Boaden lost it by a margin of just 853. Still, in the long-term, not having a Labour MP as her brother, will have made it easier for Helen Boaden to handle complaints against the BBC of pro-Labour bias.
Another supposed contender, Ed Richards, the chief executive of of the regulator Ofcom, has much stronger Labour connections. He worked alongside Roger Liddle as an adviser to Tony Blair in Downing Street, and was also an adviser to Gordon Brown. Indeed, Richards was once seen as steeped in New Labour that the former director-general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, described him as a “jumped-up Millbank oik”.
The head of BBC Vision George Entwistle boasts that after university, he briefly worked for Michael Heseltine – not in politics, but at his successful magazine company Haymarket, after Heseltine had returned to the Tory backbenches following the Westland affair. Entwistle used to be my editor on Newsnight, and I vividly recall him saying that our job every day was to come in and ask ourselves: “How can we f*** the government today?” Now I should stress that by “government”, Entwistle didn’t mean the specific government at that time (which was the Blair administration) but people in power in general, and he thought it was our duty to hold them to account. I thought it was a great maxim for journalists.
As for other possible D-G contenders, I can add nothing. But if anyone knows of any good political titbits, please let me know.
Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter.