Lord Patten on restoring faith in the BBC

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Lord Patten has survived fearsome storms as Conservative Party chairman and Hong Kong’s last governor, but restoring faith in the BBC will be heavy weather, he tells Stephen McGinty

WHEN Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, appeared recently on The Andrew Marr Show, he was asked if the corporation planned to launch a separate independent inquiry into how Stuart Hall, the former host of It’s A Knockout, was able to abuse young girls while working for the broadcaster. No, replied the former governor of Hong Kong and chairman of the Conservative Party, the current investigation by Dame Janet Smith into the BBC’s culture and practices between 1965 and 2006, triggered by the Jimmy Savile scandal, would be sufficient.

Less than 24 hours later, the BBC announced that there would, in fact, be a separate independent inquiry into how Hall, who had admitted assaults on 14 girls including one aged nine, was able to operate while working for the BBC. It was an announcement which left the chairman resembling an unfortunate contestant in the popular 1970s game show, one whose helmet has slipped over his eyes and is left to bounce off in the wrong direction.

For Patten, despite being at the tumultuous death of the Thatcher era and presiding over the handing back to China of the British Empire’s most treasured Far East possession, his most trying times have been the past 12 months with the broadcaster known affectionately as “Auntie”. The revelation that Newsnight dropped an investigation into Savile’s paedophile abuses, which was true, then, in a catastrophic example of over-compensation, ran a story about similar abuses involving a former Conservative minister, which was not true, badly damaged public confidence in the corporation and resulted in the resignation of George Entwistle, who served less than 100 days as director-general. Dutifully, Patten was at his side during the resignation statement.

Now there is a determined effort to restore public confidence in the BBC and save Auntie from herself. A new director-general, Tony Hall, has been in place for around 50 days and two senior newspaper executives from outside the corporation have been brought in to fill the key positions of ­director of news and editor of Newsnight. Reflecting on last autumn’s debacle, Patten, who looks weary, but younger than his 69 years, said he is determined to ensure the BBC is set on a steadier course before his term ends in 2015. “What the Savile case opened up was ­awful, particularly given that the BBC is under an obligation to say what is happening about itself, however horrible that may be,” he explained.

Patten said he never met Savile, the DJ and presenter of Jim’ll Fix It, who was a frequent guest at Chequers during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Personally, he couldn’t stand him. “I don’t say that now to excuse myself,” he added. Savile’s abuses, and those of others, were, he believes, linked to the worship of celebrity. “There is a strange thing about light entertainment,” he said. “It goes back as far as you can think of, since the notion of celebrity became so predominant. ­Inexcusable, appalling [behaviour], but it does tell us some very uncomfortable things about ourselves.”

The behaviour was, he believes, also a product of the times: “I think the fact that he was undoubtedly raising money for charity made people turn a blind eye to his oddness as a human being. I don’t mean his perversions, because we are told that nobody, or hardly anybody knew about it. But I mean all the other aspects of his life which were so curious, such as the morbid relationship with his mother. This is an aspect that doesn’t explain or justify anything, but sexual harassment, groping or treating women badly was an aspect of life in most institutions before feminism kicked in the 1970s.”

He insists, however, that Tony Hall, the former director of news and BBC veteran who went on to run the Royal Opera, skilfully handled the death and funeral of Thatcher earlier this year and “so I think we are back to rebuilding trust as the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world”.

“The figures we are never asked for but which I would dearly love to publicise are the ones that show how much people trust the BBC as a news organisation more than any other by margins that are embarrassingly large.”

If the halo around the BBC has slipped, the Scottish Parliament earlier this month also insisted the angelic wings were decidedly threadbare. A report by Holyrood’s Education and Culture Committee stated that it had doubts about the ability of BBC Scotland to carry out major coverage of the Scottish referendum and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 following a round of cutbacks and redundancies triggered by a cost-cutting exercise designed to trim 20 per from the corporation’s operating costs and around 120 jobs. Tensions between the Scottish Parliament and Ken MacQuarrie, head of BBC Scotland, became evident when it took a letter to Patten to ensure MacQuarrie’s appearance before the committee.

However, Patten is polite but steely in his insistence that the committee’s criticisms were not valid. “I do think it is unfair and, of course, it does not take ­account of the fact that it is the trust’s job to keep an eye on these things and to make sure that there are enough resources to do what we should be doing,” he said.

“I don’t want to have a knockdown fight with the parliament here or the parliament in Westminster about the independence of the BBC, and it is wholly proper that we should explain ourselves to parliament and to the public as a whole,” he said. “I think politicians need to be careful that they don’t give the impression that they are trying to intervene in the editorial and operational decisions taken by what is, after all, not a state broadcaster but a national broadcaster. I would be very resistant to the proposition that we would be dragged in front of a parliamentary committee every three months to explain ourselves. That would be very damaging to the integrity of the organisation.”

The chairman was in Scotland for one of the trust’s regular meetings outside London, but it coincided with an announcement that BBC Scotland had been given an extra £5 million to cover both the referendum and the Commonwealth Games and would shortly be launching a new referendum unit with its own editor.

Patten is adamant that the BBC will stand above the referendum debate, despite the fact that what a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation might resemble is undoubtedly of public interest. “What I think would be very difficult for us, is to find ourselves becoming part of the ­argument or part of the debate and I’m going to do everything I can to stop that happening. People say: ‘Well, the Bank of England makes its views clear about the day after a vote for independence, why doesn’t the BBC?’ The BBC, unlike the Bank of England, doesn’t have to impartially report what is happening here. While there would plainly be consequences for the BBC if there was a vote for independence in Scotland, I can’t now get involved in a discussion of what exactly they would be. We would have to cope with that the day after the vote.”

Is there a preparation plan being drawn up? “No, because that would be to take a position on the outcome. If we were to do that, it would be a story in four nanoseconds and we would become part of the debate in a way that would be unhelpful. Our job is to report this hugely important debate. It is the most important political decision taken in my lifetime. Making a decision about 300 years of history is big stuff.” «

Twitter: @sgmcginty