This is an extract from this week’s Spectator. Subscribe here:
Hats off to Rona Fairhead, the former Financial Times executive who will succeed Lord Patten as chairman of the BBC Trust. It requires a brave spirit to take on this poisonously politicised role — and Fairhead starts with the disadvantage that everyone thinks they know the roll call of candidates who might have been preferred but declined to apply, including her own former boss Dame Marjorie Scardino, for whose job as head of Pearson, the FT’s parent, Fairhead was passed over last year. But a mole tells me she’s ‘as steely as she’ll need to be’; and leading ladies of the non–executive circuit (she’s on the boards of HSBC and PepsiCo) are also full of praise, though one says: ‘She must like stress.’
Meanwhile, a subplot of this selection was the treatment of current BBC Trust member Nick Prettejohn, a respected City figure who was named in July as the shortlist’s last man standing — the Prime Minister having let it be known he would prefer a woman to win. Prettejohn’s candidacy was torpedoed by a Mail on Sunday article headed ‘Osborne adviser… linked to far-right group’ over a picture of him, as a Balliol undergraduate in 1980, attending an event of the Oxford University Monday Club (then a Tory Party offshoot) at which attendees made Nazi salutes and shouted ‘Sieg Heil’. Though ‘there’s no suggestion Prettejohn engaged in or condoned’ these drunken antics, said the Mail, ‘political opponents’ claim Monday Club support later helped him win the Oxford Union presidency.
I have a close view of Prettejohn (who is a director of Lloyds and chair of its Scottish Widows arm) as a governor of the Royal Northern College of Music, which he also chairs. He is thoughtful but decisive, combining business rigour with creative empathy — attributes ideal for the BBC. His politics seem liberal-minded but are not strongly expressed; his ‘Osborne adviser’ role, on a City panel, was not a close one. He is an able man with an appetite for public service, and he should have a couple of big jobs ahead of him — if his profile has not been blighted for ever. I’m wondering what machination of Downing Street and BBC politics, combined with old Oxford grudges, required him to be quite so brutally knocked out.