Media headhunters' role in search for BBC Director General

Dermot Murnaghan interviewed me today on Sky News about George Entwistle’s departure and the new search for Director General at the BBC. It was a warm-up for his interview with Tim Davie, which ended testily, with the acting DG saying he had a job to get on with and walking off. In contrast, my interview was the very embodiment of civility.

Prior to my interview, I was asked several questions by Sky staff which didn’t make it to air – and some may be worth recording. The following contains a summary of those questions and my answers.

Q: Is it normal for internal candidates to be appointed?

A: As has been fairly well documented, the media headhunters concerned in Entwistle’s recruitment (not us) approached and interviewed a broad range of candidates for the role. The shortlist contained external and internal candidates. The headhunter does not make the final selection – that is the job of the board (in this case, the BBC Trust). The headhunter can only advise – but if the client is determined to go one way, there is little the consultant can do. (On the appointment of Entwistle, I am told that there was “huge pressure” for the BBC Trust to go with an internal candidate, having gone with external candidates the previous two occasions.)

Famously, of course, James Murdoch was appointed Chief Executive of BSkyB in 2003 after a search–and look how that turned out. But the role of the headhunter is to test the market, find out who the best candidate is, and stand them against any internal candidates. In most cases where the client has a clear vision, this will result in an external appointment.

 

Q: Should the head of the BBC be from an editorial or ‘financial’ background?

A: Again, this is a decision for the BBC Trust – as with any client, the board must have an overall strategy in mind, and this will inform the appointment process. There are arguments for both models – and others. For example, Reuters was reasonably successfully run by journalists up until Peter Job’s hapless tenure. Tom Glocer was the first non-journo to run the company; he sorted it out and then organised the sale to Thomson. Other media businesses rule by a ‘church and state’ philosophy, separating commercial decisions from editorial ones.

Of course, the BBC is not a commercial enterprise. Many media businesses are run by people with a sales background; this would be an unlikely profile for a leader of the BBC, as it is essentially an editorial enterprise. However, the BBC is also a massive marketing machine, so a candidate with strength in that area might be equally valid. Most importantly, it does need to sort out its internal structures. It needs a clear thinker to see this through, and there may be strong arguments as to why this should not be someone too vested in editorial.

In which case, the BBC should look again at splitting the DG’s role from that of Editor-in-Chief.

 

Q: Is it normal to have payouts for failure?

A: Personally, I have no sympathy with payouts for failure. However, the agreement that was reached with Entwistle was clearly a “compromise agreement”, and in such cases both sides are likely to cede ground. Like a quickie divorce, a compromise is usually reached when both sides are a little embarrassed about the outcome and don’t want to air their dirty linen in public. Such agreements are very common in corporate life.

To get to their ludicrous £1.3m payoff figure, the Daily Telegraph deliberately conflated Entwistle’s pension entitlements – earned over 23 years at the corporation – with his agreed payoff. He was paid an additional six months; £225,000. This pales against other pay offs for failed executives (not least the £7m reportedly paid to Rebekah Brooks on her exit from News International).

Given that Entwistle’s career has probably suffered an irretrievable setback – only some of his own making – I would suggest that the BBC Trust has actually done the decent thing. Let him keep the money.