It always pays to scrutinise the small print in grand pronouncements about the future, especially those about the BBC. So I listened intently this morning to Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, as he set out his plans for more competition in UK television and radio production.
Lord Hall was at City University in London to explain the BBC’s offer to allow independent producers and commercial companies to produce more of its output, in return for letting the BBC’s production arm make programmes for others.
In the list of phrases that should be scratched from the management lexicon, “safe pair of hands” comes pretty high.
The man named to be chief executive of BG, Chris Finlayson, is the latest to be awarded this dubious accolade. He meets two of the requirements for the safe-hands epithet: he’s an insider – though he’s only worked for the UK oil and gas producer since August 2010 – yet he is also “seasoned” (another term that should be banned – executives aren’t sauces, for goodness’ sake).
There are four main reasons why the phrase is more curse than compliment:
1) It has a damned-with-faint-praise tone, sometimes implying that the company couldn’t find a really exciting candidate, so they played safe.
2) It is often an indication that people don’t know as much about the corporate insider as they would know about a high-profile outside candidate.
3) Safety may be a virtue in some cases but an overcautious leader is not always what companies need.
4) “Safe” is often the last thing a safe pair of hands turns out to be. In fact, the record of leaders in the safe-hands hall of fame is as spotty as that of any other executive or politician.
The appointment of Tony Hall as director-general of the BBC, succeeding the unfortunate George Entwistle, indicates how hard it is to appoint a genuine outsider to one of the most wide-ranging and complex jobs in the media.
The director-general is not only chief executive of the organisation but (now notoriously) its editor-in-chief as well. Indeed, since the job of chairman of the BBC was switched to chairing the BBC Trust, the DG is arguably chairman, chief executive and editor-in-chief.
Mark Thompson – image by Getty
I don’t know Mark Thompson, outgoing director-general of the BBC, but I have my doubts about how well his long career at Britain’s public-service broadcaster – interrupted by just two years at commercial Channel 4 – will equip him to run the New York Times Co.
Critically, his new employer has to generate its own revenues, rather than simply pulling money in from a mandatory television licence fee and then spending it.
Management is management, whether in the public or private sector. Mr Thompson is obviously talented and will arrive in Manhattan battle-hardened, not only from his fights with the UK government, and the unions, but from regular set-tos with the New York Times’ biggest rival, Rupert Murdoch, and his clan. Co-blogger and former FT media correspondent John Gapper – currently on holiday – has tweeted that Mr Thompson is “a good choice for the NYT – former hack, strategic, tough, down-to-earth. Used to opinionated employees and controversy” and “also experienced in running a media icon that thinks a lot of itself – mostly justifiably, sometimes not”.