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Samir Shah may be the BBC’s last hope

Samir Shah
Samir Shah

When I asked the Government’s choice to be the next chairman of the BBC, Samir Shah, how to sum up his new appointment, he said to tell them one word – “inspiring”. Indeed, this is not only a bold choice, it is one that takes us into some genuinely positive avenues.

The first is that Shah is a film maker, so at last we will have someone at the top who understands what television should be about. Before setting up his own production company Juniper, he was head of current affairs and political programmes at the BBC. In 2002, the Royal Television Society awarded him its top honour for his outstanding contribution to journalism. He was also a non-executive director of the BBC, chair of the Museum of the Home, and was a trustee then deputy chair of the V&A.

But while television and trusteeship have dominated Samir’s extraordinary career, he has not been confined to them. It was as chairman of the race relations think-tank the Runnymede Trust that he became known as Mr Data, carefully following all the statistical evidence and producing analysis that went against the grain of many other race relations lobby groups.

Samir also earned the reputation of Mr Impartial. He is aligned to no political party and will arrive at a time when the BBC is desperate for leadership that can defy accusations of bias and emerge even-handed.

People will like his no-nonsense attitude to cultural issues. To him, however, he is not fighting a “culture war”, but engaged in a common sense effort to distinguish fact from propaganda. And unlike some BBC presenters, he won’t have a mental breakdown in a newsroom full of white faces.

It was therefore a pleasure to have had Shah as a commissioner when I chaired Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Not only was he one of the funniest members, but he was ruthlessly impartial, cutting through all the sentiment so that we could make assessments based on facts. He didn’t ignore the “lived experiences” of those who shared their evidence, but was able to make an assessment in the round and he made an invaluable contribution to our key findings.

His appointment will make him the first visible ethnic minority to chair the BBC. This is important because he really understands that “diversity” is not about tokens or affirmative action but simply “fairness”. He will stand for everyone, from Brixton to Barnsley, in a way that allows those voices to speak more to their humanity rather than what they are meant to represent.

I watched Shah go out to meet the media scrum after our report made clear that Britain, when it came to race relations, had improved over the last 30 years. He was like a batsman facing vicious fast bowling. It was a masterclass in taking awkward deliveries: he knew when to square cut them or let the nasty ones go straight to the wicket keeper. He totally frustrated the troublemakers because he stuck to the evidence.

All being well, when Shah gets round his desk next year, he will have the fate of an extraordinary public institution in his hands. The key challenge will be how to deal with a news service that is now under scrutiny over bias (the coverage of the Israel and Palestine conflict will be an opener). Then there are questions over its coverage of climate change and, of course, the vexed issue of the current funding model and whether the broadcaster should become a subscription service.

Shah will know that Facebook, Netflix and Google are now the big players and that the BBC will have to re-imagine itself in the new world of streaming content. He’ll have to use all his arts and cunning to tread through these complex traps.

This honest broker, who was born in India and came to England in 1950, understands the migrant story not as one of victimhood and misery but opportunity, fortitude, joy and inspiration. It is this that has been the cornerstone of the BBC’s values and I am sure Shah is as determined as anyone to restore the viewership’s trust.

Ultimately, the BBC was built on making great programmes with great characters and stories. It was once the pride of our nation and the world. Something has clearly gone wrong. My sense is that my friend is going to need more than inspiration, but he’s still an inspired choice.


Lord Sewell is former chair of the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities

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