Well, we didn’t see that one coming, did we? Michael Grade has succeeded in forcing the combined mouths of the media to spend the day in a cartoon O of surprise as the news of his defection to ITV begins to sink in. Talk about pulling a blinder, as they say…
But what does it really mean? If truth be told, not a great deal to the BBC. Yes, some people within the corporation might be feeling ever so slightly betrayed, and rightly so – it’s a difficult time for Auntie, but no more so than it has been in the past, and no more so than it will be in the future. Compared to the woes of say, the David Kelly affair, the process of a departing chairman and the selection of a new one should be a walk in the park. The thorny issue of a the licence fee negotiations shouldn’t really enter into the debate – it will be what it will be, whether Grade is in the building or not. Grade’s major work was in ensuring that there was a charter there to renew, everything else is just detail.
Of course, there will be speculation until the hammer falls whether Grade is jumping ship before the government announce that the BBC has effectively lost the battle and is awarded an inflation only (or worse, a lower than inflation) licence fee rise. Until then, that’s all it will be – speculation. Yes, the BBC is still losing a very valued and popular chairman, but Grade is not irreplaceable, and with the changes happening to the role with the advent of the BBC Trust, he would have gone next year anyway… Probably.
And for ITV, the news can only be good. Grade’s appointment as Executive Chairman will hold the circling vultures from the City off long enough to give him time to turn things around. And with Grade taking the Chairman’s position, succeeding the outgoing Sir Peter Burt, there is still the question of the much-talked about chief executive’s position, but Grade himself has told The Guardian:
“The nominations committee of the board will be dealing with that in due course. I don’t anticipate appointing a chief executive inside two years.”
Grade’s appointment to the executive chair does, of course, negate the need to appoint a new Chief Executive for the immediate future. However, it is understood that Grade’s deal with ITV is for around three years, after which a new chief executive will need to be installed. In the meantime, John Cresswell, who has been serving as acting chief exec since Charles Allen’s much publicised departure, will be staying on in the position of Chief Operating Officer.
Whenever a chief executive is appointed, it is expected that Grade’s position will become non-executive at this point. For now, ITV has a powerful figure in the office who understands the business of programme making, something that ITV has forgotten over the last few years. Whether his business acumen is enough to win through in other areas for the company remains to be seen.
It does seem somewhat fitting that in the company’s hour of need, part of the dynasty that contributed to making ITV great in the first place might just be the answer to its prayers…