Sir Michael Lyons
Outgoing BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons signed off after four "tempestuous" years on Wednesday night by laying out the key challenges
facing his successor Lord Patten and admitting the corporation had made "some memorable cock-ups". Lyons confessed in a speech at the London School of Economics that the aftermath of the Hutton report – which led to the departure of chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke – last year's general election and the recession had conspired to make recent years "particularly turbulent for the BBC". He said: "There is a particular sound that everyone who has led the BBC becomes accustomed to – the sound of incoming fire." Lyons went on: "Every now and again the BBC would decide to add to the mix – by shooting itself in the foot." His 'cock-up' list included the 'Crowngate' affair, in which a trailer for a documentary about the Queen was edited to imply wrongly that she walked out of a portrait session; the "scandal of bogus competitions", which included giving a Blue Peter cat a different name to the one voted for by viewers; and the "uniquely toxic combination of profanity, misogyny, bullying and black farce" in Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's phone calls to Andrew Sachs. But Lyons defended the trust's existence, saying it was "not a traditional regulator, in fact not really a regulator at all, but with significant powers and the resources to challenge BBC management and to shape the BBC on behalf of the public who own it ... what we've concentrated on is representing the interests of the licence fee payers."
He said that included working with programme-makers to agree four key values: "High editorial standards; creative and editorial ambition; range and depth" and "a Britishness component". On the eve of Patten's first appearance as chairman-designate in front of politicians at a select committee, Lyons said the trust's "in-tray" includes guaranteeing the ambitions of the corporation's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, "never wag the editorial dog" and ensuring the BBC acts "as a counterweight" to the web's "walled gardens" created by commercial rivals. He called the rise of paywalls "the digital equivalent of the Enclosure Act", adding that the danger is people "are segmented by ability to pay and by where they live". He said the BBC "must develop not walled gardens but [be] the digital equivalent of those great Victorian parks, open to all". Lyons said he was not offering a "handover note" to Patten but warned the new chairman will face the "tough choices" that will have to be made as a result of last autumn's 'shotgun' licence fee settlement, which included freezing the levy for six years and taking on responsibility for funding the BBC World Service from 2014.
Patten will also have to do battle with the perennial issues of "ensuring the authority, impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's journalism" and "continuing to guard the BBC's independence" from political and commercial interests. Reflecting on the record of his tenure as BBC chair, Lyons said he thought history would show the past few years have been "one of the BBC's strong periods". He argued that the corporation's research shows that trust in the BBC is higher than it was six years ago, that the iPlayer has been a success and that the corporation is offering "better value for money" following efficiency drives. In his speech, called "The BBC Trust – Past Reflections, Continuing Challenges", Lyons highlighted BBC3 show Women, Weddings, War and Me as an example of distinctive programming and also praised BBC4, but said the "next step is for BBC4 to share its riches with a wider audience". He also warned that the "main challenge" is "to get more of this high quality and distinctive material onto BBC1 and BBC2 in ways that work for those audiences ... distinctiveness cannot just be devolved to the digital channels". The former market trader, who was appointed in 2007 after his predecessor Michael Grade made a surprise move to ITV, said he believed that the trust has made the BBC "more responsive to the public who own it".
He conceded that the trust "hasn't got everything right" and could have shown better that it was trying to cut the BBC's senior management paybill. Lyons announced last autumn that he was stepping down as chairman after one term. The former Labour party member had initially wanted to stay on, but Downing Street sources indicated that the new coalition government was not in favour.