Page last updated at 17:37 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 18:37 UK

Analysis: War of words at the BBC

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

Ben Bradshaw and Sir Michael Lyons
Ben Bradshaw and Sir Michael Lyons do not see eye-to-eye

This year's BBC Annual Report was upstaged by a newspaper double-whammy before it was even published.

In the Daily Telegraph, the BBC Trust's chairman Sir Michael Lyons pre-empted his own news conference by revealing that the 11 most senior managers - the BBC's Executive Board - would have their bonuses frozen indefinitely, as part of a wider review of top BBC pay.

Sir Michael then found himself under fire in the Financial Times, where the new culture secretary Ben Bradshaw unleashed a broadside against what he called the BBC's "wrong-headed" leadership.

In an unusually outspoken and personal attack for a cabinet minister, Mr Bradshaw - a former BBC journalist - said Sir Michael and the BBC director general Mark Thompson were misguided to oppose the Government's plans to take part of the licence fee and give it to the BBC's commercial rivals.

He went further, claiming the pair had lost the confidence of the BBC's senior staff: "They don't feel they're being well led on this issue. It fits into a pattern. It's not the only issue. There is almost a feeling of despair among a lot of highly respected BBC professionals."

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With emotive language such as this, and bosses' bonuses being cut for the foreseeable future, the annual report - when it came out - was somewhat overshadowed.

At the news conference, Sir Michael said he was surprised by Ben Bradshaw's comments, leaving aside the "personal criticism".

"It is indeed surprising for the secretary of state who has just started a public consultation exercise to give the impression he has already made his mind up so firmly" he said.

"There is room for differences of opinion here."


In a long-scheduled interview on Radio 5 Live, Mr Bradshaw was asked to respond.

Emolliently, he said he believed the BBC was the greatest public broadcaster in the world - but its executives needed to show "greater leadership" on the issue.

"In order to secure its future, the future of the licence fee as a funder, what the public and what parliamentarians want is some vision, some radicalism and some leadership" he said.

"I don't think we've been getting that in the quantity that I think we need in order to find a resolution to this problem."

Jonathan Ross
Salaries for top stars like Jonathan Ross are under review

Mr Bradshaw insisted he was still open to other ideas for funding public-service programmes on commercial channels, though so far these had not been forthcoming.

The minister's outspoken intervention has prompted others to come to the BBC's defence.

Lobby group The Voice of the Listener and Viewer announced that it strongly disagreed with him and would oppose the plan to take 3.5% of the licence fee income away from the BBC and give it to other media organisations.

Its chairman, Richard Lindley said: "It is right to criticise the BBC for its recent failings, and question whether its top executives deserve such extraordinarily high salaries, but quite wrong for the Government to bully the BBC into giving up licence fee income that pays for high quality programmes.

"Rather than 'top slice' the licence fee and damage the BBC, the Government should investigate the other sources of income such as industry levies that have already been suggested as ways of maintaining public service broadcasting on commercial channels."

As for those "extraordinarily high salaries", the debate will continue there, too.

Cutting the bonuses may be one thing - it ensured that the Executive Board's total remuneration actually fell by 7% this year.

But there could be further cuts. Two BBC pay reviews are continuing - one focused on executives, the other on the BBC's stars.

The BBC Trust says progress is being made in reducing performers' pay. On executive pay, Sir Michael says nothing is ruled in, or out.

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