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21 November 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 10:31am

Chris Patten: “The BBC gets bashed more than Assad”

The Chairman of the BBC Trust is on a mission to restore BBC confidence and moral authority.

By Ed Smith

In Anatomy of Britain, first published in 1962, Anthony Sampson depicted Britain’s establishment as a set of intersecting circles, each representing a different institution, loosely linked to each other round an empty space in the middle. It was in the nature of Britain’s democracy that there was no single dominating centre. If this complex Venn diagram, however, does have a single point where all the circles intersect, it would probably be located in whichever room Chris Patten is currently standing.

It is hard to think of another public figure who has moved more fluidly and effortlessly between pivotal institutions of power – the Conservative Party, the House of Lords, Oxford University, the diplomatic service and the BBC. In fact, he reached the top of them all – as chairman of the Conservative Party, chancellor of Oxford (a post he still occupies), governor of Hong Kong, European commissioner and now chairman of the BBC Trust. Many think he would have eventually led the Conservatives had he not lost his Bath constituency seat in 1992, partly through being distracted by helping his ally John Major to win the general election.

“My career has never been calculated,” he told me when we met in his office at the BBC Trust in central London. “People talk about ‘planning’ a career. I mean I was supposed to join the BBC when I was 22. So, I come to the BBC when I’m sixtysomething. And getting involved in politics was an accident on the road. I’ve never really – well I’ve taken decisions not to do things – but I’ve never actually planned a career. It just sort of happened to me.”

Planned or not, the institutions of politics, elite education, diplomacy and the media (which, in the case of the BBC, is closely linked with the arts) have all been conquered. That leaves only religion, the law and sport left to complete the full set. Becoming archbishop of Canterbury is made tricky by his Catholicism, and at the age of 69 there may not be time to become a High Court judge. But becoming president of the MCC – he knows and loves cricket – would complete an establishment full house.

Chris Patten is no stranger to challenging roles. As a Europhile, he watched the Tory party tear itself apart over Europe in the 1990s; as the last governor of Hong Kong, he had to negotiate with China. But even he cannot have expected his tenure at the BBC to coincide with such a series of crises. First the BBC tolerated and failed to expose Jimmy Savile, then it wrongly implicated Alistair McAlpine, before being forced to admit it was paying lucrative pay-offs to executives that far exceeded its contractual obligations.

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The scandals, however, have been fuelled by an underlying sense that the BBC has been losing its way in a much more general, abstract sense. To the right-wing press, it is an indefensible statist bureaucracy. That view, inevitably, has only hardened. But even people who are much more sympathetic to the BBC feel that the executive pay-off scandal has confirmed what they had long sensed – that the BBC had been quietly taken over by an executive class that was far too attentive to its own interests and insufficiently interested in making great programmes. Patten thus finds himself in a peculiar position: as both watchdog and cheerleader-in-chief.

Is the BBC suffering a crisis of confidence?

“Inevitably, given the hits it’s taken, not least the endless criticism in the written press, there has been some effect on morale,” he concedes. “Yet when people who work for the BBC talk to audiences or people from outside the UK, they’re reminded of what a fantastic national institution it is. Just after the Savile hits – an awful, dispiriting look into the cultural practices of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – polls showed that despite Savile the BBC was one of the only institutions in the country that people trust and feel proud of. The NHS, armed forces, monarchy, BBC all had big percentages in favour.”

He contrasts the negative ratings of other institutions: “You look at the rest of the media, you look at the police and the courts, I’m afraid – let alone bankers.”

He believes the BBC has felt the blows unusually deeply. “The BBC is the only institution that I’ve been associated with which gets a sense of Schadenfreude about its own problems or mistakes. It beats itself up more. I think we should start to be more positive about ourselves. People get a fantastic service for 40 pence a day. I think the important thing for the BBC is not to lose its nerve. My friends from around the world are amazed that BBC is in the headlines so much. They assume this must be an organisation that everybody is exceptionally proud of. Well, sensible people are.

“I went to a concert in Oxford on Monday. The Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz was saying at the supper afterwards how wonderful the BBC was. She lives in Rome most of the time and travels from opera house to opera house, always trying to get the World Service or finding out if she can get Radio 4 or Radio 3. And you set that against the front pages of some of the Sundays. I mean, I was thinking the other day that in some newspapers the BBC gets bashed more than President Assad. It’s extraordinary.”

Most recently, on Monday 11 November, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, speaking at the Society of Editors conference, claimed that the power and reach of the BBC’s freeto- view online news operation was undermining local newspapers. “There is a real need for the BBC to think about its own position and what it is doing and the impact it has,” she said.

“The BBC has to think carefully about its presence locally and the impact that has on local democracy.”

The walls of Patten’s office in the BBC Trust are lined with paintings from chapters in his life – an image of Hong Kong harbour hangs next to a painting of his house in France. His tone is wry, affable and measured, as though he has pondered many paradoxes and idiosyncrasies of mood and taste. A sentence running away from him, the feeling of being out of his depth, admitting to surprise: it is hard to imagine him suffering any of those experiences. Patten is now 69. “But my cardiologist tells me 69 is the new 49, so I try not to feel old.”

What is the role of the BBC Trust, and his role at the top of it? “The Trust was set up because the board of governors’ model was thought to have failed – the lesson that people drew from the Hutton imbroglio, rightly or wrongly – and the intention was to establish a body that was both regulator and strategy [provider]. It’s not supposed to act as the head of the personnel department and manage the BBC’s projects. It is supposed to set out the strategy and the executive is supposed to apply that. And I think that what Tony [Hall, the recently appointed director general] and I are trying to do, before Christmas, is to agree on a review of our relationship that will make that more explicit.”

There is a wider context to the BBC’s struggles; this has been an era of crisis across national institutions. MPs suffered their grubby expenses exposé, the banks had their LIBOR scandal (among other disasters, of course), the press was floored by phonehacking and Leveson, the police have lurched from taking newspaper backhanders to the cover-up following the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell wrongfully being accused of calling two officers “plebs”, and then the BBC entered its own troubles.

Meanwhile, the British public – threatened with declining standards of living and angered by a sense of being misled and ripped off – has taken a righteous and visceral thrill in the catastrophes of the nation’s various elites. Each depressing tale had added sting to the populist complaint that “they’re all at it”.

The horror show of institutional catastrophe has been further fuelled by the gleeful pleasure of each elite when the focus of resentment finally turns elsewhere. Bankers were thrilled about the MPs’ expenses scandal, the media even more so, which encouraged MPs to relish the problems within newspapers and the BBC. The establishment is eating itself, limb by limb.

Last month, Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party, renewed the assault on the BBC, questioning the future of the licence fee. Patten was appalled. “We were appearing in front of a select committee the other day, we’re always appearing in front of select committees, I think we’re now up to 17 in a year, on one issue or another. I said what had surprised me during my period as chairman of the Trust was on the whole the lack of political pressure from anybody. And then just to make it look as though I was a cloth head, the chairman of the Conservative Party launched himself into an exceptionally illjudged attack on the BBC.”

Patten has been on both sides of argument between political parties and the media about fair reporting. “The chairmen of the Conservative Party invariably have a bash at the BBC in the run-up to elections. I have to say to my eternal shame I did the same. But what was odd [about Shapps’s intervention] was publicly linking an attack on a journalist [the BBC home editor, Mark Easton] with the BBC as whole and the licence fee.”

I ask Patten if the criticism of the BBC was just another aspect of the wider warfare between different sectors and groups in the media?

“The Sunday paper [the Telegraph] that carried the interview with Mr Shapps, I think in four Sundays out of five had some BBC crime on its front page. And you wonder why? I mean in some cases there are, I guess, commercial reasons, the BBC is held responsible for the difficulties that some newspapers’ business models are in. I think that’s preposterous because newspapers in the US are in the exact same position and you can’t blame the BBC there. I think it’s sometimes ideological: that there shouldn’t be a public service broadcaster.”

Patten describes the scale of opposition to the BBC: James Murdoch’s 2009 MacTaggart Lecture accusing the BBC of having a “chilling effect”, the world-view of one newspaper group that “Britain is going to the dogs”, as well as aftershocks from the Leveson enquiry.

“What surprised me about Shapps’s . . . mis-Shapp was that the newspaper ran the story big but didn’t seem to notice that this was the week in which the newspapers were pointing out how dangerous it was to allow politicians to get anywhere near the regulation of the media.”

The question of BBC executive pay, meanwhile, is not going away. Earlier this month, Mark Byford, formerly the deputy director general, said there was nothing “greedy” about his £949,000 pay-off.

How does Patten explain how remuneration got to that level? “The BBC went from having pretty ‘civil servanty’ pay to paying over the odds for a number of reasons. First of all, in the Eighties and Nineties there was a view that some of the professional jobs in the BBC we weren’t doing well, so we needed to pay market rates. Then I think the view was taken, ‘Well, if you want to pay accountants more, why don’t you pay creative people more?’ And it’s bred from there, partly because of competition from the indies and from Channel 4 and ITV.”

He is damning about the pay-offs. “Noone – nobody sensible – would argue that the way that severance pay had been handled had been other than messy and shabby. It was wrong. The worst damage has been inside, because people have seen their budgets being squeezed and [also] these big pay settlements. Some of these severance payments raised . . . well, not just eyebrows . . .”

He quickly seeks to put the total amount of money wasted into context. “If you then look at a period of seven years from 2006 to 2013, people who left and were paid more than they were contractually entitled, that totalled £6.8m. Which is about what you’d have to pay to televise a football match. This is not the most outrageous example I can think of mortal sin.”

He pauses. “But it was wrong. And it stopped. And it won’t happen again. I strongly suspect that in three or four years’ time, there’ll be people arguing that we’re losing people elsewhere because they’re not being paid competitively. But from the top, the figures have all come down. I think we’ve reduced senior executive pay by about 30 per cent and numbers by about 30 per cent. Tony Hall was recruited at [a salary of] £450,000, and Mark Thompson was recruited originally at about £400,000 more than that. And so it goes on. I don’t know – well, I do know – what the editor of the Daily Mail gets. Or the chief executive of Sky gets. But there is a professional cachet about being a senior figure at the BBC.”

One recurrent accusation against the BBC is that it indulges too many bloated layers of management. This view is usually framed, as in the pay-off scandal, as the misuse of taxpayers’ money to the advantage of a bureaucratic elite. But there is a second, subtler problem with an over-managed institution: it becomes risk-averse and uncreative. The ascent of managerialism works against the BBC making adventurous top-end programmes, especially the type that the market finds difficult to fund. So there is a sense of double disappointment: the managerial class has not only been disempowering the BBC’s creative talent, it has simultaneously been feathering its own nest.

When he took the job, Patten said that the BBC ought to be able to make programmes at least as good as Danish imports such as The Killing. Yet what is striking about the BBC is that it has contributed relatively little to the current golden age of television drama – HBO’s The West Wing and The Wire, Netflix’s House of Cards. Why?

Almost everyone who experiences trying to make good programmes for the BBC describes the same debilitating process: the labyrinthine process of “pitching”, the layers of decision-makers, the way the people with the ideas very seldom meet the people who can make them happen, the general leadenfootedness. There is a sense of hovering BBC tastemakers imposing their view of what other people like, even if they don’t like it themselves.

John Lloyd, who created QI, Blackadder and Spitting Image, put it like this: “They care far too much about what people think, and it’s not even what they think, it’s what they think they think. That’s how you get the programme where ‘people would probably like that’. Well, do you like it? No, I don’t like it – I live in Notting Hill and I’m very cultured and I go to the opera – but them, they’ll like this.”

In short, creative people have limited patience for bureaucratic sclerosis – both its impositions and its outcomes – so isn’t there a risk that they will simply give up on the BBC? I hadn’t got far into that question before Patten interjects.

“I agree. That’s exactly what Tony Hall is trying to do at the moment. Strip out some of those layers of bureaucracy that have, among other things, a deadening effect on creativity. Your point about commissioning is extremely well made. We definitely have to be faster on our feet.”

Patten quickly turns to a list of programmes he currently admires. “I’m still pleased that there’s some really wonderful programming. I’ve just watched Ambassadors, really funny and perilously close to the real world. The best drama I’ve seen since I’ve been in this job is the Tom Stoppard Parade’s End, which I thought was magical. Downton Abbey is a huge success. But I’m glad that we made Parade’s End, not Downton. So there is a lot [of good programming] but there needs to be more.”

Wouldn’t making something as broad and ambitious as The Wire, while it might not appease the BBC’s ideological critics, at least show creative self-confidence?

“The BBC has to endlessly balance, to reach and also challenge the audience. And you can’t completely forget about reach. But you’ve also got to take a risk with audiences – which Wilfred Pickles did when he introduced poetry in workers’ canteens, and when the Third Programme was started. And challenging programming is what we should constantly ask ourselves about. When you’re asked: ‘What does distinctive or challenging programming mean?’ it’s one of those questions to which the best answer is: ‘Well, you know it when you see it.’ It’s not de haut en bas. It’s realising that people are invariably capable of enjoying more than the market assumes.”

It is a sentiment close to Steve Jobs’s famous dictum: “People didn’t know what they wanted until I invented it.”

Patten returns to his theme of the BBC taking risks. “When they take a punt, it’s sometimes superbly successful. I think that Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures this year have been absolutely brilliant. They’ve achieved a wonderful public educational purpose. I think lots of people, as a result of Grayson Perry’s lectures, will go into art galleries now with the self confidence to say, ‘I really don’t like that. You know what, I really do much prefer the horses and the trees and the mountains to that condom with a nail in it.’”

Unsurprisingly, Patten thinks the BBC should be unafraid to be highbrow. “I am a great supporter of the Mary Beard view that if you’re doing history programmes, the best people to do them are historians, or art critics, or literary critics or whatever.”

And allow them to speak in proper paragraphs, instead of using the formula of choppy two-sentence chunks, before impatiently cutting to the next scene?

“I feel that quite strongly. I don’t know why – well I do know why – if you’re doing the history of the world, you have to cut periodically to slightly improbable scenes of people dressed up in woad, or wearing armour and hitting one another. It’s not necessary.”

Given all his enthusiasm for risk, does Patten consider the BBC to be fundamentally conservative? “We’re constantly told that it’s a sort of left-wing, Trot organisation, which is just ludicrous – and the audience think it’s ludicrous as well. The polls last weekend showed that I think 60 per cent of people thought it was trustworthy and accurate, against 14 or 16 per cent who didn’t. That was not a fact that made its way into any newspapers.”

And conservative with a small “c”? Few are better placed to understand the distinction: Patten wrote a book, The Tory Case, about conservative thought, belonged to the left of Thatcher’s iconoclastic Conservative government, and as an former Tory MP now heads an institution often accused of having a left-liberal bias.

“How conservative is the BBC in a big sense? You can think of arguments on both sides. I think that [the drama series] Top of the Lake is an example of it not being conservative. But you could argue that the amount of drama that is cops and dead bodies – usually women’s – suggests a certain attenuated view. We do need to have some more daring drama.”

Aside from the question of creative dramacommissioning, there is a certain irony about the assumption that conservatism is always the problem. After all, isn’t there also a sense that the BBC is conservative in an Oakeshottian sense, in that it is one of the threads that connects British lives?

“I think institutions are hugely important . . . when they work. Because if they do – if they’ve survived – it tends to be the case that part of their survival mechanism is that they have a good sense of how and when to change. There is that wonderful line in [Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel] The Leopard, ‘Things have to change in order to remain the same’, which is a great piece of conservative wisdom. We still have, despite our best efforts, some great institutions. We’ve got the second best university system – much better than Europe, which is surprising, given where we were in the 19th century.”

Interwoven with his reflections on the BBC, Chris Patten has touched on the poetry of George Herbert, the origins of the First World War and the batting technique of England’s number three, Jonathan Trott. His interests reflect the breadth of his career. Given all the pleasures of private life, it’s interesting that he’s still in public life, sitting under harsh striplights in this office, reacting to the latest select committee and about to sit for photographs for this profile. Is it duty? Habit? A sense that the elite is where he belongs? Perhaps a mixture of all three.

What would constitute a successful term as chairman? “Success would be that the BBC was on the way to renewing the charter, at a reasonable licence fee level, which would enable it to go on producing the kind of programming it does now. And for the levels of trust in the BBC to have consolidated and stabilised; I’d like them to be even higher. It’s a great national treasure and it’s important that it should act like a national treasure and be regarded as – not beyond criticism – but as something that we can be reasonably proud of.”

As a summary, Patten’s throwaway aside earlier in the conversation may be more apt: “In my experience, success is the avoidance of catastrophe.”

Ed Smith is a New Statesman contributing writer. His latest book is “Luck: A Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury)