Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, appeared on BBC Radio 4's The Media Show today. He was interviewed by Steve Hewlett on a range of current broadcasting issues.
On the question of using part of the licence fee to help fund other public service broadcasters, he said:
"The problem is that it's a slippery slope. Once you let people start taking the licence fee and using it for other purposes there is a danger that that will just lead …step by step to the licence fee just blending in to general taxation and the government using it for a whole series of purposes."
Asked whether a partnership between BBC Worldwide (the BBC's commercial arm) and Channel 4 would be acceptable, Sir Michael said:
"Yes it is…The BBC has been clear - and was clear when it announced its partnership proposals - that it was willing to look at partnerships involving BBC Worldwide…But they have to be partnerships which add value, don't just transfer value. And particularly what I've sought to underline in this debate is that as far as I'm concerned BBC Worldwide is owned, not by the Government, not by Ofcom but by the licence fee payers. So they have to see that the value of their investment currently coming back - in the form of BBC programmes and taking the pressure of the licence fee - they have to see that investment well used in the future. I think [a joint venture between BBC Worlwide and Channel 4] is very likely. Partnerships are difficult to put together. Much of my adult life has been working on partnerships of one form or another. And the distance between good intentions and a partnership which really works and is sustainable - there's quite a big distance there. So these things will take time to put together. But if you've got people who come together and really address it seriously, which I think we have at the moment.…I think Channel 4 have…become much more serious about finding a partnership solution and that's to be welcomed."
On the question of why the BBC opposes merger – as opposed to a partnership – between BBC Worldwide (the BBC's commercial arm) and Channel 4, he said:
"Worldwide is not a self standing communications company. It is the commercial wing of the BBC. All of its value depends upon programmes - programme ideas created by the BBC. Separating that, breaking off that lifeline in some way, severely risks its commercial future."
Asked whether it was right for BBC Worldwide to buy Lonely Planet or take stakes in independent production companies, he said:
"The BBC Trust has this year embarked upon a review around the questions of should it [BBC Worldwide] have as broad a commercial remit as it has at the moment, and are there risks to the BBC's reputation and brand from exactly that type of activity. The work isn't completely finished but the conclusions are certainly pointing towards the fact that BBC Worldwide's remit should be narrower, it should focus on the exploitation of the intellectual property of the BBC."
Asked about criticism of the governance arrangements of the BBC – in particular that there was insufficient separation between the Trust and the management of the BBC - he said:
"My understanding of what Parliament decided when it created the BBC Trust to replace the Governors is that it simultaneously wanted to strengthen the independence of the BBC and to ensure that the management were effectively held to account. And it didn't decide to set up a regulator to do this job - the BBC Trust isn't a regulator although it has regulatory powers. What it decided was that if you really want to exert control the only place to do that is through the governing arrangements...I'm not allowed to chair the Executive Board that makes the day to day business and editorial decisions for the BBC. [But] we make well-informed decisions because we regularly meet with and are informed by the Executive…. I don't know which decisions people feel represent too close a relationship. I didn't hear people saying that when the Trust turned down the BBC's Executive's proposal for local video."
On the question how of how much Jonathan Ross is paid, Sir Michael said:
"It's certainly a lot of money. I think it is proper for me to ask whether in employing Jonathan Ross the BBC was actually making the market or following the market. And what we clearly established in that inquiry [the Trust's 2008 review of talent costs] is that other people were willing to pay that sum. Now we then get into a different debate about whether the BBC should pay those sums - for somebody who's very popular. Look Jonathan Ross came back only this last week with an audience of over five million people. So the notion that he is not popular, can't command a big audience, I think is far from true."
Asked whether, although people still have great affection for BBC programmes, they were less comfortable with the BBC as a institution, Sir Michael said:
"I think that might be true. When I was interviewed for this post I spent some time recounting the history of my own life with the BBC, growing up in East London, being introduced to the world, being introduced to literature. Do you know if you'd said to me did I have great affection for the Governors or the Director-Generals of the time I'd have looked at you with the same quizzical look that I'm giving you now. And it's the same if you look across public services. People value and cherish the services, they're not interested in the clock workings. It's the same for any area of public service. There's a gap between the institution and what is provided…We live in an age where the public are quite rightly more demanding, want to hold people to account, want to see who has made the decision and want to hear that people were held to account for the decisions they've made. That's entirely healthy, it's not comfortable always but it's healthy."
Asked whether he agreed with the Director-General's decision not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee, Sir Michael said:
"That's not a matter on which it can be in the least bit helpful for me to say whether I agree with them or not. What I am very clear about is that if you have an Editor-in-Chief it means exactly that. We have a Director-General who makes the final editorial decision about what appears on television and on radio and it's not the job of the Trust, any more than it was the job of the Governors before and it's certainly not the job of Parliament to replace his decision with their decision…My job is to protect the independence of the BBC, to protect the space for the Director-General to act with courage in what are always going to be in these circumstances difficult decisions. I also have the job of chairing the Trust when it will now deal with any public complaints resulting from that decision. But not, let me underline this, not replacing the decision of the Director-General. His space to make that decision, to act with courage is absolutely the cornerstone of the BBC's independence."