BBC’s Checkland rips chair, gov’t

BBC director-general Michael Checkland has been notable by his absence from the debate about the pubcaster’s future that has been raging in the U.K. for most of the past year.

Not any more. Yesterday, at the autumn symposium of the Royal Television Society — an annual gathering of key individuals in British TV — he took off his gloves and threw some well-aimed punches at the U.K. government and at his own chairman, Marmaduke Hussey.

Per Checkland, he finds it “bizarre” that the person responsible for guiding the BBC into the 21st century should be Hussey, who, at 73, is too old for the job.

Checkland added that Hussey had put him in an “absurd” position by appointing his successor, John Birt, 21 months before the expiration of his contract. This has led, he said, to dual leadership of the corporation over a “ludicrous” length of time.

(Per some commentators, the Beeb actually has three leaders, with Hussey as the third.)

Checkland maintained yesterday that the change of leadership “could have been more orderly,” although he insisted that, as he and Birt saw eye to eye on the future of the corporation, the damage was not as bad as it might have been. He added that it was a mistake for the BBC’s chairman to serve for 10 years, as Hussey will have done by the time he steps down.

Turning to the government, Checkland agreed that the 13-year-old, right-wing Conservative administration had been gunning for the BBC — which it considers has a left-wing bias — as far back as the mid-’80s. He said that there had been a real danger that major changes to the corporation would be included in the broadcasting bill that caused upheaval in the commercial TV system last year.

This prospect was averted, per Checkland, only because the BBC took steps to head off criticism by initiating staff cuts and launching an internal debate about its structure and purpose. The results of that debate are expected to be unveiled before the end of the year.

The outgoing BBC director-general won warm applause for his gutsy performance at the RTS symposium, where he was closely questioned by an audience of industry insiders. But many wondered why, with the BBC seeming to lack direction in the past year, he hadn’t spoken up before.

Checkland responded to this criticism by saying that he could not enter the debate publicly until the BBC had got its house in order in regards to staffing levels and efficiency. The danger, he said, was that he would otherwise end up defending the BBC’s bureaucracy rather than its programs.

He added that it would have been pointless to enter the fray until the government had unveiled its own proposals for the Beeb, which had been expected in May but are now to be published next month. The RTS symposium, a major event for British TV, was presumably important enough and near enough to that date for him to begin to state his case.

Checkland’s outspoken and lucid answers to questions indicate that he will be a tough adversary for the government.

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