In his first speech as chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons on Thursday defended savage job cuts at the broadcaster, which will see a net reduction of about 1,800 posts.
Sir Michael, addressing a Royal Television Society audience, said the six-year plan announced two weeks ago by Mark Thompson, the director-general, had been reported as if it were just a response to a lower-than-expected licence fee settlement from the government.
“But this is by no means the whole story,” Sir Michael said.
“The key driving force was the recognition that Britain is changing very rapidly and the BBC has to change very rapidly too.”
Sir Michael used his speech to defend the corporation and the trust, which replaced the board of governors as overseers of the BBC after the Hutton Report into the broadcaster’s reporting of the government’s justification for the Iraq war.
He said he was addressing the central question, asked by many commentators in recent weeks: what is the BBC for?
He sought to rebut criticism that the BBC was pandering too much to youth and minority audiences and had abandoned the principles of education, information and entertainment laid out by John, later Lord Reith, its first director-general.
The BBC now had a broader mission to “engage with licence fee payers as citizens as well as audiences” which “recognises the fact that the UK is in some key respects almost unrecognisably different from the Britain Reith knew”, Sir Michael told his audience in central London.
“For the BBC to be fit for purpose in this changing Britain, it has itself to change, and to change significantly.”
For instance, he explained “the BBC is being challenged to play its part in reinforcing social cohesion in an increasingly diverse society”.
Audience research had told the trust that licence fee payers regarded the corporation as too “London-centric”, hence the move of 1,500 jobs to Salford, Greater Manchester, starting in 2010.
He hinted at a change in recruitment policy so that Mr Thompson and his executives did “more to achieve a workforce that fully reflects the diversity of the public”.
He reminded his audience that he would not tolerate the waste of licence fee money on exorbitant salaries for celebrity performers.
“There are tensions here …between the demand from the public for the BBC to bring them the best available talent, and a real concern that the BBC might contribute to inflated fees and salaries,” Sir Michael said.
On the question of the BBC’s purpose, he said: “My short answer is that the BBC must contribute to the success of the UK as a whole.”
He added: “The BBC, and the licence fee that supports it, can only be justified if the BBC delivers something of real value to everyone in the UK.”
Change of status would require an act of parliament
Any attempt to privatise Channel 4 would require an act of parliament because, contrary to popular belief, there are no shares to sell, the author of a new history says on Friday.
On the 25th anniversary of Channel 4’s first broadcast, Maggie Brown says even the original certificate for 100 foundation shares, which would now be irrelevant to any change, has been lost.
“Everybody thinks there are shares in Channel 4 and they could be used as part of a privatisation process …but in fact the government returned the original shares to the channel in 1992 and that company is a dormant subsidiary of the statutory Channel 4 Television Corporation,” Ms Brown said.
“No new shares were issued for the corporation and it would require legislation to privatise it.”
Debate over the status of Channel 4 still rages, with Andy Duncan, the current chief executive, arguing that it faces imminent financial crisis which should be met with public funding.
In her book, A Licence to be Different – The Story of Channel 4, Ms Brown argues that political lobbying over its status has been the main role of successive chief executives since Michael Grade, now executive chairman of ITV, had the job between 1988 and 1997.
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