Sir Michael Lyons appointed as BBC chairman

Sir Michael Lyons has been appointed the new chairman of the BBC.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has announced that Lyons, the former chief executive of Birmingham City Council, is to succeed Michael Grade in the £140,000 position.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell said: "Sir Michael Lyons is experienced and talented. He has a distinguished track record in local government and a wide range of other sectors.

"He will be an excellent chair of the new BBC Trust. Along with the eleven trust members, he will represent the interests of the licence fee payers, ensuring they receive quality programming and value for money.

"Sir Michael joins a talented team of people, including Chitra Bharucha, whom I would like to thank for her work as acting chair during this period."

A string of big names were linked to the job when Mr Grade quit for rival ITV last year.

But many of them, such as broadcaster David Dimbleby and former film producer Lord Puttnam, ruled themselves out of the race, prompting speculation that the job had become unpopular.

Sir Michael, a professor of public policy at Birmingham University, recently completed a three-year review into changes in the council tax system.

But his proposals – recommending an upper band of council tax for homes worth more than £2 million and a low band for the cheapest homes – was shelved by Gordon Brown.

Conservative culture spokesman Hugo Swire said his closeness with Brown would "add to the concerns about how this Government has politicised the appointments process".

Lyons said: "It is a great privilege to be appointed chairman of the BBC Trust.

"As the BBC's sovereign body, our duty is to ensure the public who pay for the BBC retain overall control of their BBC.

"As chairman I will never lose sight of the public's core expectations of editorial independence and quality programmes across television, radio and the internet which inform, educate and entertain.

"I look forward to the exciting challenges of the future and working with my colleagues on the Trust to ensure the BBC provides a quality service to justify the public's continuing support."

Sir Michael is a former chief executive of three city councils – Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Birmingham.

He was a street market trader between 1970 and 1972 before moving into brand management, academia and local government.

Lyons's brief background in broadcasting includes a role as a former non-executive director of Central Television (2003-2006).

Until recently he was chairman of the Regional Advisory Council for ITV.

Sir Michael is also chairman of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The applicants were interviewed by a panel and a recommendation was made by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.

The candidate's name was then sent to the Privy Council, which advises the Queen, and was rubber-stamped by the Prime Minister.

Union leaders urged Sir Michael 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."

Bectu official Luke Crawley said the union was "puzzled" that someone with no background in broadcasting had been appointed to the post.

"We would caution him against endorsing any plan which involves achieving cost cutting through widescale redundancies.

"That would be resisted with industrial action."

Paul McLaughlin, national officer of the National Union of Journalists, added: "The fact that Sir Michael has no significant experience in broadcasting is a concern, as is his perceived closeness to the Government.

"We hope he will protect the BBC from itself and from outside attacks and we will resists any moves to slash jobs or cut back on quality."

Appointing the new chairman behind closed doors has fuelled suspicions of cronyism, Hugo Swire said.

"We congratulate Sir Michael on his appointment. However, today we have a situation where important appointments – increasingly dominated by Labour supporters – are made without any form of public scrutiny," he said.

"It is deeply regrettable that another announcement should have been sneaked out when Parliament is in recess.

"People are entitled to ask on what criteria Sir Michael Lyons – someone with close links to the Labour Party and Gordon Brown in particular – was selected for this role.

"It is time for major public appointments such as this to be conducted with greater transparency and to receive greater Parliamentary scrutiny – which could be in the form of a Parliamentary confirmation hearing from the relevant committee.

"But to have a situation where an applicant from a confidential shortlist is announced when Parliament is not sitting is unacceptable."

Sir Michael admitted at his first press conference in the job that he had not watched much TV.

Asked what his favourite programmes were, the head of the BBC said: "I probably sample rather more radio than TV because of other demands.

"I'm an inveterate supporter of Radio 4, I've grown up with that, I wake up with the Today programme every morning."

"I regularly listened to programmes like Analysis and the Moral Maze.

"One of the things that I cherish is bringing through new comedy faces."

He also said that he cherished drama on TV, adding that in the last week he'd watched Persuasion on a different channel (ITV1) and Life on Mars, "which has got some of the best one-liners I could hope for".

He said another of his favourites was The Sopranos "which demonstrates that we have got something to learn from American TV".

Sir Michael denied accusations of cronyism saying: "One or two people have suggested that I'm very close to the Chancellor. 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."

He said BBC staff should not fear him as a job-cutter.

"I don't think anybody needs to fear my appointment."

The new chairman, who admitted he applied for the job, made a small gaffe when he called BBC Director General Mark Thompson, Mark Thomas.

The former street trader also disclosed that he once worked as a kennel boy but he said of his experience as a trader: "I'm certainly not seeking a part in EastEnders on the basis of this experience."

Sir Michael ducked a question about what he thought of the licence fee settlement saying: "I don't have to have a view on it," because it had already been settled.

Asked about the huge pay packets of BBC stars like Jonathan Ross he said: "High salaries always bring about public anxiety. There's always a controversy. The dilemma is of course if you are going to recruit stars you have to recruit them in the market as it is. That's the challenge that faces the BBC, to draw people that the British public want to watch. You obviously have to pay the market rate for that."

But he added later: "I will continue to watch that."

He admitted he was not a programme maker but said: "I'm very clear that this is not a one-man band. The chair works with the Trust and the Trust has considerable experience in programme making.

"Certainly I'm not a programme maker but I'm surrounded by people with these talents."

Asked why he took the job, he said: "The timing was really fortuitous for me," adding that he had just come to the end of his local government review.

"It was the right time to be looking for a new opportunity. I had already sent details of the jobs I thought I might be interested in a big head hunting organisation."

He said of the chairman role: "It's one of the biggest jobs in the country … why wouldn't anyone be interested in it?"

During today's press conference he sent out a message about kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston.

"The BBC Trust might necessarily be independent in its decision making, but it should never be detached from the responsibilities and risks which its journalists and staff face in doing their jobs."

He said his first priority was to "learn more about what the public expects from the BBC" and that he would "safeguard the BBC's editorial independence and ensure that it is impartial, never allowing any individual, organisation or body of opinion to gain too much influence".

He said the BBC had to be "aware of its own strength in the market (and) listen to the commercial sector".

He added that "radical thinking" was under way about the BBC's future but would not reveal what plans were afoot.

Sir Michael said the Hutton controversy had been a "very testing time for the BBC, lessons have been learned and a whole new constitutional arrangement has been put in place".

He added: "We are bound to see some challenges over the next few years. It's impossible to predict what they will be."

"I have had some challenging times in the past," he said, adding that he would be able to face any fresh ones.

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