Rona Fairhead is clearly a clever woman. Her record in industry and then in banking was such that she became one of the great and the good of the United Kingdom, reaching the exalted heights of being chairman of the BBC Trust, a position for which she was, in my view singularly unqualified.
Like all great and good people there are possibly a number of unsavoury skeletons in her cupboard. Yesterday I watched her being grilled by a committee of Members of Parliament about her role as director at HBSC in charge of the audit committee, when she denied any knowledge of wrong doing by HSBC and any incompetence in her role. Her chairmanship was of a committee of HSBC which was tasked with “oversee the management and hold the executive to account”.
The wrong doing alleged was that HSBC effectively conspired with customers around the world to evade taxes due in certain jurisdictions. The management and executive were not held to account although they may be in future. Much of the wrong doing was apparently taking place under Ms Fairhead’s watch.
Ms Fairhead will know that although she was theoretically a non executive director of the bank, a non executive director is merely a title, not an office. All directors, whether part time full time or occasional time bear responsibility for the actions of the company of which they are directors, in some degree.
If you are chairman of a committee and do not make proper enquiries you do not fulfill your function. Ms Fairhead did not do her job. Perhaps she will return the money she earned in that job, but I doubt it.
It is not surprising that governments appoint people with Ms Fairhead’s qualifications to the BBC Trust. It is undesirable but unsurprising. The qualities need to oversee industry and commercial enterprises are very different from the qualities need to oversee a state broadcasting organisation. The BBC Trust is tasked with being “the guardian of licence fee revenue and of the public interest in the BBC”. The task contains two conflicting roles; getting value for money (which is what I suppose being guardian of licence fee revenue is all about) conflicts with being a guardian of the public interest. Although it is in the public interest to get value for money, that task (which can be carried out by executives and auditors under proper regulations) is only one small part of the public interest, and not the dominant part of the public interest.
Fairness, lack of bias, justice, accuracy and integrity are all much more important than value for money in any state broadcasting organisation and the trustees of the BBC Trust, should, like Caesar’s wife, be beyond suspicion becasue they regularly have to consider whether the BBC has adhered to the important qualities in the public interest . Regardless of the actuality, Ms Fairhead is not beyond suspicion and should resign from the BBC Trust.