BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead: “The BBC is a lightning rod for attack”

In a wide-ranging interview, Rona Fairhead lays out the challenges of charter renewal, the future of the licence fee and the danger of losing more live sport

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Rona Fairhead is “sad” about the corporation’s dwindling sports coverage. A football, rugby and cricket fan, she recognises it has become heavily denuded on the BBC, which this year has been forced to give up its Formula One contract early to Channel 4, to share the rugby union Six Nations tournament with ITV and has seen US giant Discovery swoop to win UK rights to the Olympic Games from 2022.

And if we recall the BBC’s bygone TV sports staples, such as horse racing, domestic football and Test cricket, one could be forgiven for fearing the corporation may have to consider covering Tiddlywinks one of these days.

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But while Fairhead may be echoing the views of any viewer and mother across Britain (her two sons, aged 19 and 17, and her 15-year-old daughter play cricket and the family regularly attend Chelsea’s home games) she is also a fan who’s in a position to make a difference. She is the chair of the BBC Trust, the body that regulates the BBC, monitoring its performance and representing the views and interests of viewers.

With as much as £35 million about to be cut from an already starved sports budget, the BBC could well lose more rights, she admits, over the next five years – when the whole organisation will need to save a further £550m as part of the new licence fee deal.

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“Some [savings] will come from programme content cuts, and one of the biggest areas is sadly sport,” she adds, noting that the astronomical cost of Premier League football now accounts for a quarter of the total amount spent on TV programmes in the UK.

I find it very sad. You don’t want to get the BBC to a stage where there is so little coverage that you lose the innate production capability, and I still think that the coverage that the BBC gives of sport is superb.”

A career businesswoman and a fully qualified pilot whose other hobbies include scuba diving, she ran the Financial Times Group and was a director of banking group HSBC before she was picked by David Cameron’s government for the BBC job in October 2014.

She watches a lot more TV nowadays, naming among her favourite programmes W1A, Doctor Foster, London Spy and War and Peace. She is also pleased that BBC1 has shown it has “heard” the Trust’s recent call to “take more risks”, via dramas such as Poldark and thriller From Darkness starring Anne-Marie Duff.

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For the most part, her tenure has been a rocky one, culminating in the Government’s speedy decision last summer to impose a tough licence fee settlement on the BBC and shoulder the esti- mated £750m cost of providing free TV licences for the over-75s. 

Director-general Tony Hall and the Trust were given just a few days to consider, reflect on and negotiate the deal in secret. Despite securing some concessions, she faced calls to resign for her failure to stand up to Whitehall.

When we meet she is elegantly dressed in a pale-grey suit, with her trademark pearls. She says she remains “surprised” by the way the process was handled, but believes the foundation is there “for a strong BBC of the future”.

“What I objected to was there was no public process,” she says of the five-year deal that, she says, agreed the sums with- out first deciding what the size and scope of the BBC would be and hearing what viewers wanted.

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The sorry business also finally sealed the fate of the Trust, which will almost certainly be abolished by the time the current BBC charter runs out on 31 December 2016; even Fairhead agrees that a new and clearer regulatory system needs to be established once the next BBC charter is in place in 2017. 

Fairhead’s Trust has also had to steady a BBC ship rocked by the Jimmy Savile revelations – while also being responsible for the final deci- sion that ended BBC3’s life as a TV channel (it goes off air next month to become online-only). The criticisms have been intense and often personal and Fairhead admits that it has “not been pleasant at times”.

“It’s the BBC! You know, I’ve talked to various other people who were in other organisations, and they say it’s extraordinary just how much the BBC is a lightning rod for attack,” she says.

She adds that she often marvels at the discrepancy between hostile newspaper attacks on BBC management and praise for its programmes in their features pages.

But she has faced tougher challenges, not least during an awful 2010 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year that her brother, Euan Haig, died in a car crash.

“[The cancer] was quite aggressive and quite spread, but they got it just in time so I was very lucky. So very brutal treatment…and then  Isaw my brother die in a car crash while I was in the middle of chemo… so when you look at the low points you sort of put things into context…I think it comes with the territory.”

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She isn’t one of those who are convinced that the Government’s conduct over the licence fee deal reflects an ideological, free-market hostility to the whole idea of the BBC.

“I think if you talk to senior members in Government they would all speak of the impor- tance of the BBC, its ability to unify, its ability to educate… you know, it’s a terrible word, but that soft ‘power’ that it gives the UK.” 

She also doesn’t believe that the BBC has an inbuilt “liberal bias” that makes it vulnerable to attacks from a right of centre government.

“Look at some of the top… look at the Jeremy Paxmans! I mean, look at some of the guys that have been very, very eminent presenters, they are from all political views, so I would say I know just how hard the BBC works [at impartiality]. I’ve seen it at close hand.”

And while she won’t say whether she wants to stay involved with the BBC once the Trust is abolished, she still feels she has a role in rallying BBC staff and the wider public to its colours. Both in defending the licence fee and in safeguarding how the organisation is managed and regulated.

“I hope that we will fight like crazy to make sure that the voice of the public, who want a strong BBC that is universal, that is distinctive, that is independent, is heard – and that’s our main job this year.

“What I’m saying is, for all those people who are angry – there are a lot of people who are angry out there – concentrate on building the protection into the next charter. Channel all that anger towards getting protection for the BBC so it can make do and mend itself.”

With such talk, perhaps the BBC has a sporting chance after all. 

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