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Interviewing the chairman

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David Kermode | 16:27 UK time, Thursday, 13 July 2006

The BBC Chairman Michael Grade joined us on the Breakfast set this morning. Thankfully his visit wasn't unannounced.

Breakfast logoHugo Rifkind, in his Times diary, smells a rat. "It helps to own the airwaves when you have a case to make," says Hugo.

It's certainly true that stories about the BBC are tricky, when we are the BBC. But I don't think anyone who watched this morning's interview with Michael (watch it here) will have thought that he'd popped in for a cup of tea and a tickle.

Michael Grade, on the Breakfast setDermot launched straight into the licence fee negotiations, then Sian put him a question about Jonathan Ross's salary - "why so much?". This had nothing to do with her personal predjudices and everything to do with the volume of email and texts this morning on the issue.

Michael told Dermot and Sian they could be earning a lot more in the commercial sector. Then came executive pay - why, when jobs are going, are pay packets getting stuffed at the top? "We need top people" was the Chairman's response.

There were further questions on the kind of programmes the BBC chooses to make. Are we celebrity obsessed? Are there too many repeats? After around six minutes of grilling, we let him go. To suggest that Michael got an easy ride would be nonsense. He was treated just like any other public servant being held to account.

Hugo will know that journalists tend to respond very badly to being told to stick to a particular line, or giving someone an easy ride. The BBC's newsroom is robustly resistant to corporate interference, to the extent that no-one really bothers to try as far I can tell. Ordering BBC journalists around is like trying to herd cats. And anyway, I'm sure Michael Grade would have been horrified if we'd suggested he might like to tell us what to ask him.

That said, I did have a twitchy moment, watching this morning's interview. I was convinced he'd been knighted a while back - and thought we'd neglected a 'Sir' (it turns out he got a CBE). Had I got my hands on the introductory script, I might have knighted him. I fear that might have undermined all of the above.

David Kermode is editor of BBC Breakfast


Its important for the BBC to pay well, but not over the odds, so that they can attract the top talent in various fields, which in turn should lead to a high quality of programming. That said Ross on £15million over 3 years is a bit excessive. Secondly some of the prime time programmes such as 'Only fools on horses' is a bit low brow for the 9pm slots given to it.

Hugo is normally spot on with the several comments in 'People', and I chuckled this morning when I saw Michael Grade's schedule.

Am I right in thinking the event being held tonight is in Norwich, which was the reason for doing Radio Suffolk, Radio Norfolk and so on? It's a shame BBC Essex were missed out for an interview over WM, as we also fall under the Look East region which has been promoting the meeting.

Anyway, it's good to see top people at the Beeb being questioned like this, whatever the platform and position of the programme. I'm still a little skeptical of needing "top people". I'm sure the BBC do, but the two that have resigned have done so (apparantly) over job cuts, and not over the pay the job offers.

  • 3.
  • At 07:15 PM on 13 Jul 2006,
  • jenny wrote:

Just watched the interview and the words “yes but..” crossed my mind frequently.

Yes but… do the public care what channel Jonathon Ross is on? More importantly, do the care enough to fork out a cool £18m to watch him on the BBC and not, for the sake of argument, ITV?

Yes but… if money is the their primary motivation do we want them running the BBC?

Mr Grade was grilled at a similar temperature to any other pubic servant , but that’s the problem - the BBC never really test the quality of answers, they never turn up the heat sufficiently to make it worth the effort. And they always keep too tight a hold on the debate.

  • 4.
  • At 10:11 PM on 13 Jul 2006,
  • David M wrote:

The moment where Grade tried to justify Ross's £18 million contract by saying "the BBC operates in a market for talent both at the executive level and [raising his hand to indicate the interviewers] at the onscreen level" was absolutely chilling! The somewhat sinister unspoken message was: "You can't criticise Ross's salary too much, because you onscreen people get a pretty good salary too!" I think the BBC interviewers probably felt unfairly gagged by this not-very-subtle signal that they dare not bite the hand that feeds them.

  • 5.
  • At 10:44 AM on 14 Jul 2006,
  • Ed wrote:

Well, its hard for the BBC - either they pay more and get "the best" and people complain that its a waste of their money or they pay less and get second rate people and people say that its a waste of their money. Really the people to blame are the other TV companies for jacking up the amount people can expect to get paid in the industry.

Was anyone actually fooled by this "interview"? It was little more than a PR stunt. You can't expect the audience to believe there was no conflict of interest on behalf of the interviewers, no matter how hard they tried to distance themselves from their positions as employees of the very person they were interviewing.

Such events are commonplace. For example, in the days I worked for a university, it was common practice for the head of department (HOD) to ask his employees to grill him on any issue with which they had some grievance. Oddly though, despite several meetings taking place, no issues were ever minuted in the meeting reports, and after an internal auditing exercise it turned out that our department had the 'happiest gang of scientists' in the university. Some time later, a Dr X (aggrieved at some awful peer review by a colleague) rumbled the HOD by sabotaging the minutes and putting down his own version of events. It didn't make pretty reading. The scientist is now in selling ice-cream at a roadside stall somewhere in the midlands. The HOD retired three years ago with a golden goodbye.

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