In an exclusive interview, Sir Michael Lyons, the BBC chairman, talks to Matthew d’Ancona about the licence fee, the Ross-Brand affair — and hints at flexibility over funding
If there is a stereotype of the BBC chairman, Sir Michael Lyons does not match it. Marmaduke Hussey, for instance, was the archetypal establishment patrician, while Gavyn Davies was one of the original New Labour cronies (felled by the Hutton Inquiry). Sir Michael, in contrast, has a beaming, technocratic countenance, the look of a brand manager at Sunshine Desserts who has good news for C.J. about tapioca sales. Which is probably a good thing, given the scale and the nature of the task that faces him, and the range of adversaries he confronts.
Squirrelled away in a modest office in Marylebone High Street, Sir Michael heads the BBC Trust that was formally established by Royal Charter in January 2007 and is quite distinct from the BBC’s Executive Board — the two bodies replacing the now defunct board of governors. In theory, the trust’s role is quite clear: to oversee the BBC, set its overall strategy and review its performance.
In practice, its precise function is, as they say in Whitehall, ‘evolving’. And as much as its 59-year-old chair vehemently resists the charge that he is ‘micro-managing’ the BBC, he is certainly having to roll up his shirt-sleeves and get his hands mucky. He says that the Trust is honour-bound to deliver ‘findings of detail’ and that the idea of declaring a contentious broadcast to be ‘broadly correct, broadly true — that fills me with horror’.
Consistent with that, he meets Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general, ‘about once a week, sometimes more often’. Though emphatic that his primary job is not to be ‘a flag waver… constantly defending’ the BBC, he became precisely that in January when Thompson was attacked for refusing to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza aid film.
‘I began to feel that some of the political criticism of his decision was crossing the delicate line between fair comment and undue interference in the editorial independence of the BBC,’ Sir Michael declared at the time. ‘At that point I thought, and still do, that a red card was in order.’ So — on occasion he will play the tigress protecting her cubs? ‘All I wanted to do was send a warning that actually that’s a no-go area; that the BBC must withstand such pressure,’ he says now. ‘It wasn’t the first time we’d done it, but the first time that it was visible.’
Top of his list, however, is the licence fee and all it symbolises. How could it be otherwise? The compulsory levy of £142.50 a year for the privilege of owning a television set is intrinsically controversial, and will become more so as viewers, especially the young, get used to downloading everything else for free.
And then there is the question of heavy-handed collection methods. Surely it must unsettle Sir Michael to find himself opposed by a distinguished conservative journalist such as The Spectator’s Charles Moore, who has run a doughty campaign in these pages against both the methods used to collect the fee and the things upon which it is spent? Does he really want to be pitted against such respectable commentators?
‘Well, to be honest, I take absolutely every critic or complainant seriously,’ he replies. ‘I’ll be interested in what other motives they have.’ Then he thinks better of pursuing that ideological angle and concedes that ‘actually there was a problem, and our review [of licence fee collection published in March] has shown that. The BBC has done a good job since the licence fee collection was taken away from the Home Office, particularly in recent years. The level of evasion and avoidance has been dramatically reduced and that’s great news for other licence fee payers. I personally think that the biggest problem here is that nobody who pays the licence fee wants to think that somebody else is getting a free ride — so we owe it to those who pay to get this right. But I think what the review showed [is that] we’ve got our objectives slightly confused… Let’s start by getting the tone right for the first, initial discussions with folks so that actually we work from the assumption — correct for most people — that this is an oversight or they don’t have a television and it’s going to be quickly corrected… So I think there’s room to improve here. Yes, there was a problem, yes we’re going to correct it.’
Behind this lurk other questions about the sustainability of this funding model. Lyons is predictably against David Cameron’s proposal to freeze the licence fee for a year as a response to the new economic climate and the Age of Austerity. But, intriguingly, he leaves the door open to renegotiation if the inflationary presumptions underpinning the 2007 licence fee deal prove to be wrong. ‘Let me say now — if it turned out that the licence fee settlement over the remaining three years was delivering to the BBC more money than the licence fee settlement had intended, then I’d certainly be up for a discussion.’ Its value in real terms? ‘Yes, in real terms. And I’d absolutely be up for a discussion about how that should be dealt with.’ Mr Cameron, take note.
What about the teenagers who download all their music for free and watch YouTube? Won’t they find the licence fee demand risible? ‘There’s a universal experience, isn’t there, of growing up? Recognising that you have to pay for things? You move away from the parent paying for everything and pay for it yourself. It is absolutely inconceivable that we can live in a world in which intellectual property is freely available without any recompense to those who were the originators and developers of the idea.’
But, I say, the whole point is that the next generation of viewers not only regard that proposition as conceivable (everything is free), but take it for granted. ‘Yeah, yeah. I’m not disagreeing with you there, but I am saying whilst we can tolerate that as part of the growing-up process, it isn’t a model for the future of the creative community in this country. And when some of those same sixth-formers decide, as many of them will, to make their future in the creative sector, the notion that they’re not rewarded for it will be unacceptable to them. I’ve got no doubts that actually we have to get this right and, therefore, regarding anti-piracy arrangements, the BBC has to be as strong as anybody else in the sector in protecting against piracy and underlining that if you want distinctive path-finding programmes, radio, that actually, that has to be paid for one way or another. So there’s a common cause here with the whole industry. Is the licence fee under threat? Well, my view is that it’s not actually. It is slightly quirky that it’s linked to the ownership of the television station, I will entirely accept that, but that’s historical, what we’ve got there, and most people pay it and accept that they are paying for the BBC’s services.’
Not when those services include shouting obscenities down a phone at Andrew Sachs about sex with his granddaughter, they don’t. The Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand affair was arguably a more important event in the history of the BBC than the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. It established Radio 2 as the unlikely front line in a new culture war, and it forced the BBC to confront its priorities, its ethos and the exorbitant sums it was spending on potty-mouthed ‘talent’.
Sir Michael deploys language with the political caution of a man with decades behind him at the apex of local government and the Audit Commission. He says tha
t ‘what you don’t want to do is squeeze out risk-taking’. But it is clear that the words ‘Ross’ and ‘Brand’ are still like the screech of fingernails on a blackboard, and he is unequivocal about where blame lies in that affair. ‘It actually showed,’ he says, ‘at a very senior level in the BBC, a dereliction of duty.’
A big review of editorial guidelines is underway. But what did the episode tell him viscerally? ‘My suspicion is that the one thing that is absolutely out of bounds is bullying and I think that was what people responded to, both in the Sachs case but also in the Gwyneth Paltrow case [Ross told the actress on his BBC1 show last year that he would ‘f*** her’]. Lots of people don’t like bad language at all but when bad language is used in combination with bullying, that’s a place where the BBC shouldn’t go.’
Sir Michael Lyons is, I suspect, one of those apparently diffident Englishmen who are capable of quietly menacing effectiveness. He is well aware of the BBC’s flaws and the fury, justified or otherwise, it is capable of inspiring. My hunch is that he will put his head above the parapet more and more. And, for what it is worth, I walked out on to Marylebone High Street a little more convinced that, for now, my £142.50 a year is in good hands.