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Friday, 27 April, 2001, 08:11 GMT 09:11 UK
Sir Christopher Bland quizzed

News that the Chairman of the BBC is to leave the Corporation to head the telecommunications giant BT has surprised the media and the business world.

Sir Christopher Bland, who has been BBC Chairman since 1996 will take over at BT almost immediately - but says he will stay in his post at the Corporation until a successor is appointed.

Some observers say that this could produce a conflict of interests for Sir Christopher and the BBC - though Sir Christopher argues that he has always distanced himself from matters of editorial policy.

Sir Christopher takes over at BT at a time when the company is facing serious difficulties. It has huge debts as a result of its purchase of licences for the next generation of mobile phones. Its share price has plunged and there have been suggestions that the company may have to sell some of its assets to raise the money

Is Sir Christopher right to try to combine both jobs - and is he the right man to turn around the ailing telecommunications giant?

Sir Christopher Bland answered your questions in a live forum on Thursday.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Transcript:


Richard Ellis, London, UK:

How can you give your full attention to two major corporations at the same time or are chairmanships not that important?


Newshost:

Another questioner adds:


Helen Bright, London, UK:

Apart from the potential conflict of interests, how will you find the time to attend to two demanding jobs at the same time? Surely they are both going to suffer as a result.


Sir Christopher Bland:

There are two separate questions there - the first is the time pressures - they are genuine and I understand that. Both are part-time chairmanships and secondly at the BBC my vice-chairman, Gavyn Davies, has said that he will step up and help out if there are clashes of dates or problems with diaries, so I believe we can manage the time pressures in both organisations. But I have also said to the Board of Governors that if it doesn't work then we will have to do something else. We will have to see whether the time pressures are sustainable and manageable - and we believe they are - but if they aren't then we will have to take another route.


Newshost:

On the issue of the conflict of interests - there are editorial conflicts of interest in that the BBC might well be covering stories about BT - they are bound to be over the next few months. Also commercial conflicts of interests because the BBC and BT are in the same business - the must be lots of contracts that the BBC has with BT and its competitors.


Sir Christopher Bland:

Again two separate issues and I think the editorial one is the most significant. The job of the chairman and the Board of Governors is to defend the BBC's editorial independence from outside influences of all kinds. But I have no influence on day-to-day editorial decisions or coverage - never have, never will and the BBC's editorial teams are fiercely independent - you are one of them. I have never tried and certainly never succeeded in influencing or toning down the fierceness with which you interrogate me about the BBC's policies - and quite rightly - and the same will apply on BT issues.


Newshost:

Why not just make a clean break with the BBC and go straight to BT?


Sir Christopher Bland:

Well that would be much simpler for me - walk out on Tuesday night, turn up at BT on Wednesday morning and life would be very simple. But I don't think that would be right for the BBC. It seems to me that the Government need time to recruit and put in place a successor and during that time the BBC needs either a chairman or an acting chairman. The Governors feel, the Government feel and William Hague felt when I spoke to him, that ideally, if I can manage it, I should stay on and try and do both jobs and I think that is right.


Newshost:

Does the election make that more sensitive the timing of all this?


Sir Christopher Bland:

I don't think so. It means that the recruitment of my successor will be drawn out a bit longer because it won't be done by this Government, it will be done by the government after the election of whatever complexion that might be - it stretches the timetable. But I don't think it affects the basic decision.


Chris Slayter, Lincoln, UK:

As chairman of BT, and the BBC, won't you have influence over the BBC's interactive content aligning with that of BT's broadband project Openworld? This would give bias to one platform provider over many others, would it not?


Sir Christopher Bland:

It would if I did but I don't - I haven't had so far and I don't intend to develop any influence over those content issues - it would be inappropriate. It is not what the Governors do and it is not what the chairman does and I am not about to change that.


Ken Tindell, York, UK:

Will one of your top priorities be overhauling the UK broadband rollout so that we can catch up with the US and other European countries?


Sir Christopher Bland:

I haven't started at BT and I am not abreast of the broadband rollout issues from a BT perspective - I am involved in them and aware of them from a BBC perspective. Are they the same? I don't know. I expect there will be differing views of the same issues. Broadband and its development is of keen interest to both organisations. Ideally they both have the same objective, which is the rapid spread of broadband within the United Kingdom.


Thomas D McGrath, London:

How do you think you will be able to turn around an ailing company in a competitive environment when your experience lies in the public sector - where are the synergies?


Sir Christopher Bland:

My experience at the BBC is in the public sector but I have been chairman of NFC, LWT, Life Sciences International, of Sir Joseph Causton and Sons. I have had a lot of private sector experience in delivering stakeholder value to shareholders, to customers and to employees and that is the experience, above all, that I bring of value to BT.


Anjana Menon, London, UK:

What in your view are the biggest problems facing BT?


Sir Christopher Bland:

I don't think I would start with the problems - I would start with the opportunities. BT is one of the leading global companies in an exciting and expanding sector of telecoms. It faces some of the problems that all large telecoms groups are publicly facing - 3G licences is one area and in common with France Telecom and with German telecom businesses, BT has a substantial and heavy load of debt and that debt needs to be sorted out and that is one of the priorities of the board at BT.


Newshost:

Now that is not a problem that you have had in your previous commercial activities at LWT and so on is it?


Sir Christopher Bland:

I certainly have. The first company I was chairman of - Sir Joseph Causton & Sons - and we owed the bank 3 million on shareholders' funds of less than half that and we were losing 600,000 a year - that was changing what needs to be changed or mutatis mutandis as we say at the BBC - a similar problem. But BT is not losing money, it is a profitable organisation, it has great strengths, it has got assets it can realise and although it is a much bigger problem, in quantitative terms, it is nothing like as tough as Sir Joseph Causton & Sons was.


Jenny Chapman, London, UK:

I have received extremely poor service from BT since subscribing over from Cable & Wireless a year ago. BT is in a mess - it's obvious, when they failed to put in an ordinary line after five weeks of calls. I hope that Sir Christopher will realise that public perception and consumer confidence is at an all-time low and that he will address this.


Sir Christopher Bland:

I won't address it personally but I am absolutely aware that BT serves a huge range of customers. I am aware and I fear it is inevitable that from time to time, with quite such a big customer base, some will be dissatisfied. But one of BT retail's jobs is to make sure its customers are really, really happy and to have the highest possible degree of customer service.


Newshost:

The BBC is a very big organisation with a lot of customers or licence payers - do you see any parallels between the two organisations and will that help in any way in your new job?


Sir Christopher Bland:

I do in the sense that BT touches almost every consumer in the United Kingdom and so does the BBC. There is a sense of ownership of the BBC that is one of its great strengths. BT is different - not public service but nevertheless a great British organisations that people, I believe, wish to see do well.


Craig Marriott and Dave Allcock, Ashfield, Notts:

How do you intend to lift moral within the front line engineering workforce, in the face of plummeting share prices and the uncertainty of departments being partially or wholly sold off?


Sir Christopher Bland:

Change and reorganisation always affects morale in the workforce and the BBC has been no exception to that. The BBC has gone through a period of unparalleled change and major job losses over the last 15 years and so has BT and that is a difficult background against which to raise morale. But the essence of change, I believe, is to communicate clearly and openly about the need for change - why it is happening, when it is going to happen. The share price, I believe, in the long run - that is part of the chairman's and the board's job.


Stuart Latham, Dudley, West Midlands, UK:

What can Sir Christopher bring to BT that Sir Iain Vallance could not offer? Isn't this a case of the old-boy network finding jobs for their friends?


Sir Christopher Bland:

I had met Sir Iain Vallance once in my business life before I was approached by the board of BT. They did it through head-hunters who identified me as the candidate they wanted. I talked to all the board members involved in the appointment - one was an old acquaintance but everybody else to me was a stranger. So it wasn't jobs for the boys and nobody in their right mind would either offer the BT job on that basis or accept it. If I thought that was the basis of the offer then I would run a mile.


Newshost:

I read that Greg Dyke, the Director General of the BBC, said that there was this media network in the UK - this media old boy network. Doesn't exist?


Sir Christopher Bland:

There are a lot of people in the media who know each other but I don't believe they can give each other jobs for that reason. Greg certainly didn't get his job as Director General on that basis - the governors were - 12 of us -all independent and we appointed him because we thought he was the best man for the job. I hope and believe that that is why the board of BT appointed me to be their chairman and succeed Iain Vallance and if it was for any other reason, they have made a mistake and so did I - but I don't think it was.

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26 Apr 01 | Business
Vallance resigns from BT
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