Chris Patten: BBC has more senior managers than the communist party

The chairman of the BBC Trust added that Rupert Murdoch's newspapers "were bound to question" his position, but the crisis could be solved by better management.

Chris Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, today told Andrew Marr that the BBC was facing its worst crisis since the Hutton Inquiry.

He said that "awful" journalism  had "disgraced" Newsnight, and therefore he understood why the director-general, George Entwistle, had resigned.

Marr asked him whether Entwistle's "car-crash interview" with John Humphreys on Radio 4's Today programme had contributed to his decision to leave. "You don't go on an interview with John Humphreys and expect the bowling to be slow full tosses," Patten replied.

"We're a news organisation and our credibility depends on telling the truth," he added.

Marr asked whether Entwistle's "lack of curiosity" about the incorrect Newsnight story was the problem. Patten agreed partially, adding "from the beginning… he was implicated in the crisis. He was director of vision when that first Newsnight programme went out".

However, he said, Entwistle was "cerebral, decent, honest, brave".

Asked about his own position, Patten said that it was "bound to be under question by Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, let's be clear about that". 

But he later added that opponents of the BBC "are fairly cagey about the way they talk about it" because of the corporation's wide public support. "It is one of the things which defines Britishness." 

As for the suggestion that Newsnight was "toast" - as presenter Eddie Mair suggested on Friday's programme - Patten said: "That's a rather quick judgment … at the heart of our journalism is good investigative, uncompromising journalism, and Newsnight been part of that tradition. We want to hold on to that. We want to make sure that Newsnight and other programmes are properly managed.

"It's obviously been compromised by the fact that senior executives were recused from involvement . . . [but] decisions about the programme went up through every damned layer [of management]".

After Andrew Marr complained about the existence of an out-of-touch "senior management group" at the corporation, Patten said that he had always joked there were "more senior leaders at the BBC than in the Chinese communist party" but that it had worked to change itself.

The BBC Trust chairman promised to appoint a replacement for Entwistle within weeks, and not to let the corporation become too risk-averse. 

Chris Patten on Andrew Marr's programme.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.