Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand make big news by behaving badly at our expense. Generously paid – indeed, grotesquely overpaid by taxpayers who are forced to leave these things in the hands of auntie BBC – they abuse privilege. Nothing new in that. But – and here is the good news - there is recourse. The Daily Telegraph reports that “Sir Michael Lyons, the chairman of the BBC Trust, telephoned the corporation's Director-General on his holiday in Sicily to demand swift action to end the controversy over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand”. Even the Prime Minister found time away from our wars and the collapsing economy to utter on the matter.
Many people felt, and feel, that the DG of the BBC Mark Thompson could and should have acted more quickly and decisively over this. Of course. The world at large had to wait for several days, almost a week, before the whips cracked and something was done. Imperfect as it may have been, the point is that something was done. Why? Because, despite its staggering complacency and the arrogance born of its outrageous privilege, the BBC does have a degree of accountability. They may rig phone-ins, waste our time cultivating “personalities”, put on shoddy programmes that nobody sentient would watch or listen to, and overpay “celebrities” with our money, but when they enrage the people who pay for them, there is – adequate or not - something that can be done. The BBC Trust is at a distance from the BBC executive, and there is also Ofcom – although their role in this particular story appears to be inglorious, and their fine of the BBC over the rigged phone-ins was nothing less than insulting. At least Ofcom exists.
You know where I am going – but it is a serious issue. The FAC (Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee) claims on its parliamentary pages to scrutinise the British Council. But if you read the transcripts of their sessions, or attend them, you can only conclude that this is not scrutiny but more akin to an invitation extended to dignitaries by the local WI. Our talk this evening is given by Lord Kinnock who can tell us about foreign countries, and things like that. Lord Kinnock is chairman of the BC trustees. Can anybody seriously imagine him recalling Martin Davidson from his holiday in Sicily to sort out something inappropriate? Of course not – because Lord Kinnock is the lead salesman, apologist and defender of the British Council, and the organisation has a record of turning a blind eye to events, seriously bad events, not just for days, but for weeks and months and years. There is no distance between the executive and the supposed governance of the organisation. And there is no Ofcom, no body to scrutinise the British Council, no control, no forum for appeal, no committee or government department which accepts responsibility for this organisation enough to actually do something about it. There is nowhere to go.
These taxpayer-funded organisations – all of them – need to understand one simple truth; accountability is not just a matter of saving the taxpayer from the vagaries, follies and failings of such as the BBC or the British Council, vital though that is; it is about saving those organisations from themselves. The BBC goes at least part of the way there. And the British Council?