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New BBC chief is another Government crony

London Telegraph | April 6, 2007
George Jones

Gordon Brown was accused yesterday of using his position as "Prime Minister-inwaiting" to place his supporters in key posts after Sir Michael Lyons was appointed chairman of the BBC Trust.

Sir Michael, a former Labour councillor, carried out three reviews for the Chancellor, most recently a study of reform of the council tax system in England.

Hugo Swire, the Conservative culture spokesman, said the BBC appointment was made behind closed doors, without any form of public scrutiny and had fuelled suspicions of cronyism.

"That yet another person with close links to Gordon Brown has landed such a key job - and with limited broadcasting experience - seems to add to the unease that the Chancellor is placing his people in positions of authority," Mr Swire said.

He said Sir Michael had worked closely with Mr Brown and it would be hard for him to avoid questions about "his relationship with the Prime Minister-in-waiting." Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom, was a former adviser to the Chancellor, so both people in charge of regulating broadcasting in Britain "have been on Gordon Brown's payroll".

Sir Michael said he had worked closely with politicians of all parties and had established a "unimpeachable record for both independence and strength of character".

"One or two people have suggested that I'm very close to the Chancellor," he said.

"It's certainly true that he's asked me to do three jobs which were very difficult. I did them to the best of my ability.

"But that's where it begins and ends. I worked for him and enjoyed that work.

"I'm coming to a different role now and will deliver absolute independence and impartiality.''

Sir Michael, 57, said he had applied for the BBC job on his own initiative, as the next stage of his career, and had not been put up to it by the Government.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, said Sir Michael was experienced and talented, with a distinguished track record.

"He will be an excellent chairman of the new BBC Trust," she said.

"Along with the 11 trust members, he will represent the interests of the licence fee payers, ensuring they receive quality programming and value for money."

Mr Swire said that important public appointments were increasingly being dominated by Labour supporters.

Sir Michael's appointment had been "sneaked out" when Parliament was in recess.

Major public appointments should be conducted with greater transparency and receive greater Parliamentary scrutiny.

The BBC has a Royal Charter, so Sir Michael was officially appointed by the Queen. In reality, he went through a selection process at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A shortlist was compiled by a selection panel, usually made up of a minister, a BBC executive and an independent assessor. Candidates were interviewed and the panel made recommendations to Miss Jowell for a final decision, rubber-stamped by the Prime Minister.

In a newspaper interview in 2004, Sir Michael refused to say whether or not he was still a member of the Labour Party.

Union leaders urged him not to axe any more jobs at the BBC, warning they would resist any more redundancies. Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the broadcasting workers' union Bectu, said Sir Michael's first job would be to consider the finances available to the BBC.

"The BBC will have reduced resources so Sir Michael will have to determine his priorities, but we don't see any need for redundancies,'' he said.

Paul McLaughlin, national officer of the National Union of Journalists, said Sir Michael's "perceived closeness" to the Government was a concern.

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