Date: 18 May 2014, Science, Technology and Culture
Question setter: John Karslake

BBC Trust Chair

Will a woman be selected as the next chair of the BBC Trust, following the resignation of Lord Patten?


Answer: Yes
Confidence level: 20%
Mean confidence level (all requests): 23.33%

There are many good women candidates for the role of BBC Trust Chair and apparently PM David Cameron is keen to select a woman. This should be reason enough for the decision to go that way. The PM wants to woo female voters. He must hope that a non- (Conservative) politician and woman would attract less vitriolic flack than Lord Patten. He and Javid should be able to deflect criticism of positive discrimination by finding a woman of suitable merit. The main reason that might not happen is that the position can be seen as too difficult for anybody to perform well and therefore put off too many good candidates. It will be extremely hard for someone new to make their mark positively within two years, which is when the current BBC charter ends. People who had their eye on the job were probably hoping that Patten would stay in place till 2016 and then the BBC's future might be clearer.
Overall, the likelihood is that the push for a woman will succeed but it is narrowly balanced so my answer comes with a low level of certainty.

Outcome: Yes
Score: 20
Mean score (all respondents): 23.33

Expert opinion:

Answer: No

Selected Expert Answer from John Karslake:
The appointment of the next BBC Trust Chair presents an imperspicuous challenge to Sajid Javid, new culture secretary. Potential candidates may be reluctant to take a role that could soon be abolished. The position was seen as a poisoned chalice for Lord Patten, with the scandals and the (mis)handling of the DG's departure. Many felt that it blighted his otherwise successful career. Who would be prepared to risk the same fate?
Then there is the question of how the job should really be defined. Patten was both staunch defender of the BBC and regulator of the BBC, with the emphasis seeming to be mostly on the former. Sajid Javid may wish to make regulation the primary force and hope the clarification will reassure candidates - not easy when the current mandate for the Chair still has some time to run.
It's reported that the PM favours a woman for the role with support from Margaret Hodge et al. Could this backfire if the contenders sense tokenism over merit? With all the other issues the thought might turn women candidates away. Sir Howard Stringer was an early favourite, being a BBC non-exec director. The uncertainty of tenure makes him a likely option to keep things going. With many strong contenders ruling themselves out, it narrowly tips the balance to selection of a man.

Answer: No

Selected Expert Answer from Mettletest Panel:
Reports that David Cameron is pushing for a female candidate to be the next chair of the BBC Trust are more likely to deter women than attract them. John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons' culture select committee, which will have input to the process, was quick to counter with demands to appoint "whoever is the best person". He rejects positive discrimination. If you combine this with the hostile scrutiny now inherent with the job and the probable disbanding of the Trust when the charter is renewed in 2016, you can expect all applicants to be reluctant, especially women and especially women in the private sector. Those who hanker after the role will be sensible to bide their time and see what the form is two years from now.
Culture secretary Sajid Javid will probably have to select from the two continuity candidates, Diane Coyle, the acting chair, and Sir Howard Stringer, currently a trustee. It could go either way but Coyle's husband is the BBC's technology correspondent, which might present a conflict. Stringer has been touted as the obvious choice and, despite all the speculation on other names, could well be the selection to fight on to 2016.

Answer: Yes

Selected Expert Answer from Mettletest Panellist:
Despite its high profile, the role of BBC Trust Chair may prove difficult for the culture secretary to fill satisfactorily. There are calls for the Trust to be abolished and for the dual responsibilities of regulator and head of the BBC to be split. A new incumbent could find their era shortened. Meanwhile some will feel it a thankless task. It is claimed that Cameron wants a woman in the seat and Javid may feel pressure to find one with the right skills. The Conservative leader is keen to appeal to the female constituency following criticism of the dearth of women in cabinet and the parliamentary party. Chair of the Trust is someone who's appointment he can claim credit for while hoping that he can maintain a safe distance subsequently, if it all goes wrong. There is no shortage of strong women contenders either: Marjorie Scardino's media experience and reputation make her a front runner and Alison Hastings is a BBC trustee, while, of course Diana Coyle, the acting chair might wish to continue the role properly. Helen Alexander is supposed to have ruled herself out but Colette Bowe, recently retired as chair of Ofcom, might fit if the regulation side of the job is considered paramount. With this talent and more to be considered, Cameron should get his wish on gender and merit.

Outcome: Yes

Comment on outcome from Mettletest Panellist:
"Rona Fairhead, former head of the Financial Times Group, has been officially confirmed as the chairwoman of the BBC Trust." - BBC news 9th Oct. 2014. The new chair remains a non-executive director of both HSBC and PepsiCo. As the first woman to be appointed, Rona Fairhead had to answer MP's questions about her ability to look after her children if she took on the extra workload and about her husband's political affiliations. She also refuted the implication that she had been favoured for the role because she is a woman - Is gender important to the trust role? “No, it should be the person who has skills for role.” If it is true that PM Cameron preferred a woman for the role he did indeed get his wish on gender and merit. Fairhead is widely accepted as a worthy choice and a strong leader.