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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 April 2007, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
BBC Trust
On Sunday 29 April Andrew Marr interviewed Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman, BBC Trust

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Sir Michael Lyons
Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman, BBC Trust

ANDREW MARR: Now, the way that the last chairman of the BBC left was a stunner! Michael Grade was negotiating the licence fee one moment, and out of the blue announced that he was quitting to head up the opposition, ITV.

Well it's taken nearly six months to select and install a successor.

And the new man in the hot seat has much that's controversial sitting in his in tray.

What will the Beeb have to scrap now that the licence fee income turns out to be much less than hoped for.

Should it be in every market and how important is to give viewers new choices about how and where they can watch their telly. Well, the new chairman is Sir Michael Lyons. Sir Michael, welcome.


ANDREW MARR: Let's start with a little bit about yourself. You're really an adoptive Brummie, I guess.

MICHAEL LYONS: That's right.

ANDREW MARR: And you've been, you've run some big councils and you've run, you've overseen the City of Birmingham orchestra. But you've also most recently done a series of big reviews for Gordon Brown.

ANDREW MARR: That's right.

ANDREW MARR: And I put it to you, Sir, that there are people who say that you are therefore a bit of a Brown cronie and that having a Brown man installed as head of the BBC's a bad thing.

MICHAEL LYONS: Well, look, I think the beginning and end of this story is that the Chancellor together with the Deputy Prime Minister asked me to do three reviews.

I think I've done them well and that's why each one came along subsequently, and that's the beginning and the end of it. I've worked for him and that's, I'm not alone there. A few other people have worked for the Chancellor.

ANDREW MARR: Were you at all disappointed, because the last review you did was on local government and local government finance.

And you were looking at new ways of raising money, and that's all been pretty much kicked into the long grass, I guess if you look at the opinion polls the fact they're fighting a local election, maybe that's why. But were you a little bit disappointed by that?

MICHAEL LYONS: Well, this is a project with a very long fuse, and what I was really interested in is striking a new balance between local and central government. More local choice, more freedom for people to determine what's right for their community. That's what the review is really about.

ANDREW MARR: Big issue.

MICHAEL LYONS: Taxation's part of that. They're sensitive issues, they're sensitive, this is a debate that's been going on for 30 years. I think we'll see more as it unfolds over the coming years.

ANDREW MARR: All right, well your first proper meeting is in the week ahead, as chairman of this new BBC Trust. How is the trust going to differ from the governors? Are you going to be, as it were, more the voice of the viewers and the listeners and less also speaking for the BBC as an institution, is that the key?

MICHAEL LYONS: That's absolutely, that's absolutely spot on. The new charter, the new constitution slightly separates what were the governors and creates the new body which is the trust.

It's 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. So there's a tension and a challenge created.

ANDREW MARR: Built into it.

MICHAEL LYONS: Built into it. And that's our job to make sure that comes...

ANDREW MARR: So, I mean does it follow from that that when you read about the licence fee being 2 billion short as far as the BBC is concerned, over the next five years, that's not something you necessarily take the BBC view on?

MICHAEL LYONS: Well, firstly it's history now. We're where we are. My job and the job of the trust is to agree the way that money is used over the coming six years and that's where Mark Thompson and his colleagues come forward with proposals. There is an energetic debate about the right balance there where our input is informed by the public, and then we strike at the way things go forward. So we have to approve that pattern.

ANDREW MARR: All the way through there has been a tension in the BBC. Does it go for mass audiences, and in the view of some of its critics therefore quote dumb down to get there, or does it go for very, very high quality programming that nobody else can do or make. And of course if you talk to anyone at the top of the BBC on the staff side they'll say we don't make that choice, we make brilliant programmes which are also popular. But in the real world there is that tension. So, which way would you like to see the BBC leaning?

MICHAEL LYONS: Well I agree. I think there is a danger of a false dichotomy here and the important thing is that for each and every market the BBC addresses that it needs to come up with a quality product. It is important, and I share the view of those who are anxious that the BBC becomes less authoritative, it's an important part, an important British institution, cultural institution and therefore it must be authoritative. But equally it has to find a way of satisfying different audiences.

ANDREW MARR: So where is the priority? I mean is there an irreducible core of factual programmes, natural history programmes, news and current affairs and all of that, which is at the centre and the BBC then tries to do other things around but always sticks with that core first?

MICHAEL LYONS: Well I doubt it can be addressed in that way, not least because our tastes and preferences as a population are, to begin with, very diverse but secondly, changing over time. So I think it's difficult to define this in simple terms. But you're right, the heart of the challenge immediately in front of us in agreeing how the licence fee is going to be used over the next six years is to make sure we've got this balance as close as possible to what the public want.

ANDREW MARR: And you're going to have to allocate, well you're going to have to speak as it were, on behalf, of the BBC's, people to pay for the BBC and the people who watch and listen to the BBC, look at the BBC on-line. In doing that how are you going to discover what people really want because as you say some people want more gardening programmes, more cookery programmes, more reality programmes. So how do you go about speaking for such a diverse audience?

MICHAEL LYONS: Well the first thing is that's one of the strengths I bring to this job. I've spent much of my time over recent years dealing with the complexities of what people want from public expenditure and so I think that puts me in a good position to understand how you bring together different and contrasting, and sometimes conflicting views.

The trust got off to a good start, it's set in place instruments for using, for instance its audience councils to learn more about what the public want. Very good consultation exercises over some of the difficult choices immediately in front of it. Quite an array of different techniques to understand what the public want.

ANDREW MARR: So when the Director General Mark Thompson comes to you and says, well there are really hard choices here that we have to take, we're going to have to do less news and current affairs, or we're going to have a lot more repeats.

How are you going to deal with those, are you going to go back to your research and say, well actually that's not what people want, or are you going to say, as it were, look in the mirror and say, but actually what is the BBC about? How do you start to deal with those>

MICHAEL LYONS: Well it is a challenge and of course I don't act alone. I've got some very talented people around me on the trust. We will be educated by what the public want. You're right to say we've got to interpret that from all of the evidence that we draw.

But the hallmark of this I think will be, wherever possible, putting out views back out so that people can react to them before they're finally implemented. So that's a two-stage process, and that's exactly what the trust has done so far - take an initial position, put it out for consultation, and then move on.

ANDREW MARR: Let's turn to one of the current controversies which will be on your plate in this coming week, which is something called the I-Player which, I'm not very good at these things, but this is something that will allow you to look at BBC programmes that you've missed, for a limited amount of time, on your computer.

Now, there are people, as you know, who say this is exactly the kind of thing the BBC shouldn't be doing because it's crowding out other businesses who could be coming into that market, making it harder for people selling DVDs and all the rest of it. So where would you stand on the I-Player?

MICHAEL LYONS: Well, the I-Player is just one of a number of examples where there is a real tension between the BBC doing what it's expected to do, which is to meet the needs of an audience across the country which is changing over time - people want to access programmes when they want them rather than to depend on schedules created by other people and it's just one of the issues that emerge from that.

At the same time the BBC's got to be very careful not to tread on the toes of other competitors because it's a big economic animal, and one of our jobs is actually to make sure that balance is right.

ANDREW MARR: So you'll be looking at that when it comes to things like the I-Player, with a quizzical...

MICHAEL LYONS: Unequivocally, we'll be looking at, does this serve the public interest, is it appropriately balanced with other commercial interests? And that's exactly at the heart of the public value test that we'll apply.

ANDREW MARR: And do you think that we could see the BBC actually coming out of big markets, or dropping away from things. I mean there have been comments in the papers for instance about, you know, do you need quite so many BBC television channels? We could have BBC Clever and BBC Young as well as BBC1.


ANDREW MARR: Or perhaps we shouldn't be doing Radio One any more. Those kind of radical decisions, do you think they're up for grabs?

MICHAEL LYONS: I think everything's up for grabs. I mean exactly how this licence fee settlement is used needs to be looked at very carefully. Mark Thompson and his colleagues are deeply involved in that already and the trust has started the engagement which will enable us to make the right judgement.

So I think it's absolutely important that we don't rule out anything out, or anything in. And that we don't end up in a sort of gradual salami slicing, taking a little bit away.

ANDREW MARR: Better take some big decisions.

MICHAEL LYONS: Better take some big decisions.

ANDREW MARR: And, just before you go, when your appointment was announced you did imply that you weren't terribly keen on watching television yourself, is that true?

MICHAEL LYONS: I think that's a slight misinterpretation. My wife really finds it very amusing that I don't watch enough television. So, what I said was that actually I watch television, I listen to radio, I'm a fan of radio. It's question of a balanced lifestyle, isn't it. Lots of different choices, and I probably am pretty average for the British population really - theatre, cinema, television, radio, a great set of delights to choose from

ANDREW MARR: All right, Sir Michael "average for the population" thank you very much indeed, and welcome.

MICHAEL LYONS: Thank you very much.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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