And so another BBC career ends in the way that is characteristic of the corporation: an executive barbecued by the outside world, then finding that there isn’t enough internal support to withstand the flames. Alan Yentob was one of the defining figures of late-20th-century television in Britain, an innovative channel controller and the commissioner of some of the BBC’s most celebrated programmes. But a long-term problem was created when his hands-on roles came to an end a decade ago. He had the chance to devote himself to appearing on-screen, yet he allowed himself to be given the more nebulous post of creative director – thus staying on well past his contemporaries and retaining a stonking staff salary at the age of 68.
Cynics have said that there were 183,000 reasons per annum why he wanted to stay in management but we now know that he made huge personal donations to the ill-fated Kids Company, of which he was chairman. What was almost certainly more alluring was a seat on the BBC boards and knowing what was going on. He adored being at the centre of things.
It must have been frustrating at times because other hands were on the levers of power and Yentob’s successors as directors of television guarded their territory. He made up for that by “being Alan”: a genial and loquacious presence at meetings, seldom failing to tell us which of his world-class contacts had been in touch and materialising at the important corporate moments, often with an apposite piece of advice. He was a sturdy advocate of the BBC on public platforms. But it was understandable that staff and outsiders questioned whether this was a proper job spec and they also got grumpy about the whiff of a television lifestyle that predated the age of austerity.
His days were thought to be numbered at the time of the transition of the director-generalship from Mark Thompson to George Entwistle but, after the Jimmy Savile crisis of 2012, his mobile went into overdrive and he was believed to have helped broker the arrival of Tony Hall as director-general – though that would have happened anyway. “I think I have been rather more involved in running the BBC than people imagine,” he claimed at the time. And he was eager to welcome Hall through the doors of Broadcasting House. “I have promised that I am going to be there for him,” he said.
However, I doubt that Lord Hall of Birkenhead will now be waking up at night in a cold sweat, panicking that Yentob is no longer by his side for the charter renewal battle ahead. As a result of Kids Company’s collapse and Yentob’s unwise decision to phone BBC editors with thoughts on their coverage, his role was becoming, as he admitted in his resignation statement, “a serious distraction” in difficult times.
The extent to which Hall and Yentob thought alike also carried risks for the BBC. It has seemed that almost every time it wanted to show its public service virtue, it has trumpeted its arts partnerships – and a Covent Garden-Notting Hill alliance may not have as much saliency as they would like in modern Britain. There still doesn’t seem to be as much of a compelling vision of the future as the BBC’s supporters would hope; it might have helped to have had someone from outside the metropolitan elite chattering in the DG’s ear. Hall should resist the idea that “being Alan” is a continuing role.
But there is a degree of confidence within the BBC that it will emerge from its battles in reasonable shape. The Chancellor’s raid on the corporation to make it fund licence fees for over-75s provoked less outrage than it should, with the BBC Trust being shown yet again to be supine in times of adversity. If ever there was a reason to resign, this bypassing of Trust functions by government diktat was it. Then the government’s Green Paper, which asked generally sensible questions about the role and shape of the organisation, prompted some in the BBC to go into existential-crisis mode. They commissioned research to show that people would miss the BBC if it were abolished, which has never been an option for any politician with a sliver of sanity. The truth is that senior BBC figures have faith in the Prime Minister and George Osborne not to push the corporation too hard and they don’t see David Cameron as a frothing-mouthed Beeb-basher.
There is some concern about the activities of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, who has been supervising what is left of the licence fee negotiations. Whittingdale has blasted in a number of own goals, including fuelling a debate about the role of Strictly Come Dancing and suggesting that the BBC should move its news out of the 10pm slot. This allowed the corporation to move the fight on to its preferred territory of programmes that are valued by the audience, as opposed to some of its more questionable activities. There may be more clashes ahead but the recent announcement of increased funding for the World Service shows the way that Broadcasting House will hope to deploy its relationship with Downing Street, rather than the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
It is vital that the BBC comes through this in good shape. Maybe one day it will face the meltdown it fears but its history – now going back over almost a century – shows its talent
for survival. It is thrashing ITV in the ratings, it has more than half the radio market, it is the dominant supplier of broadcast news and it is a global power online. Through the decades of reviews and commissions and scandals and competitive sniping, the BBC has always emerged intact: never quite as big as it would like to be but never laid low as its enemies want. It’s a safe bet, with or without Yentob, that this will happen again.
Roger Mosey is master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires