Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Safeguarding Trust (continued)

Sir Michael Lyons was appointed to chair the BBC Trust in spring 2007. Sir Michael explained his understanding of the Trust's role to Andrew Marr: "Its first and foremost responsibility is to speak for the public for those people who pay their licence fee, and not to immediately defend actions taken by the BBC staff." (see blog 29 April 2007)

So Sir Michael didn't think his first duty is to immediately defend BBC staff. But that's not the impression he gave when giving evidence to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 18 November 2008.

The BBC's Royal Charter makes it clear that the Trust and the Executive are to act independently, but despite this there's been no real difference between their positions on the Ross/Brand incident. During his evidence to the Committee Mark Thompson often seemed lost for words, and on more than one occasion Sir Michael Lyons butted in, including this telling exchange about 20 minutes into the Committee hearing:

Q99 Mr Evans: Don't you think they were both guilty, Mark, of gross misconduct, Ross and Brand?

Mr Thompson: Well I don't think I want to go any further than the public statements we've already made about all of the parties. I made it very clear that I thought that the behaviour of the on-air broadcasters was unacceptable in this case.

Q100 Mr Evans: You wouldn't go as far as gross misconduct, for what they did?

Mr Thompson: (hesitatingly) I've said that I believe that what was broadcast was utterly unacceptable, and I believe that the broadcasters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, as we've said already, as I've said and I've made it very clear to Jonathan Ross, who I've spoken to personally about this, this was completely, completely untoward and unacceptable behaviour.

Q101 Mr Evans: If this had happened in any other walk of life they would've been sacked immediately. Why didn't you sack them, Mark? Show real leadership?

Sir Michael Lyons: Mr Evans, can I help you because we do want to be as helpful as possible, but I did say in my preface to this that we were not here to disclose information which had not yet been fully considered by the Trust and which will all be made public later. But let me just help you a little bit on this issue by reflecting one of the issues which the Trust has already received some information on, but has not yet finished its deliberations before you bandy around words like 'gross misconduct'. There can be no doubt at all that you should not expect performers to either use the language or insult people in the way they did on that programme. However, the BBC has a duty of care here in terms of allowing that material to be broadcast. The primary failing, and the failing that the Trust has focused on, primary failing, is not the antics of performers, it's the fact that that was allowed to go out over the airwaves. And we mustn't avoid that responsibility; that's the thing to focus on. Now, it will've been contributed to, and there are a number of things which we are seeking to explore, one of them being whether it is right to leave a young producer implanted in a company owned by one of the performers. That's one of the things the Trust is seeking to explore and we've made that exploration public. But, until we've finished this work I would just be careful about terms like 'gross misconduct' which have contractual implications.

Why was there so much reluctance to answer Nigel Evans's questions ....why were both Sir Michael and Mark Thompson doing everything possible to save Jonathan Ross from the inevitable consequence of his actions? Even going so far as to strain credulity and use the then impending Trust report on the incident as a shield. Saying that the 'primary failing is not the antics of performers' was attempting to lessen Ross's culpability, even though his egregious behaviour had been plain for all to see.

The Chairman and the Director-General acted like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in their interviews on the Ross/Brand incident, as they both attempted to transfer primary blame from Brand and Ross to backroom editorial staff and, in Thompson's case, to Radio 2's Controller. In fact there is significant disquiet about Ross within the BBC, one insider describing him as obnoxious, overpaid and unpleasant.

Earlier, on 31 October 2008, Sir Michael gave an interview to John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme. Although the primary focus of Humphrys' questions was on 'taste and decency,' the Trust's prevarication in dealing with Ross and Brand was also highlighted by Humphrys. Ofcom's announcement that they were to investigate the prank, a day in advance of the Trust's announcement, wasn't mentioned.

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