Time to get with the programme again

Alan Yentob is confident of steadying the BBC's ship following its recent scandals. By Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

A trolley carrying the slogan "Experience eating at the BBC" comes into view on an eighth-floor corridor of the splendid, modern edifice that is Broadcasting House.

Standing outside the new studios of Radio 1, the BBC's creative director, Alan Yentob, is expounding the architectural merits of a wonderful vista which begins with a new paved piazza and extends beyond the iconic spire of John Nash's All Souls Church to the outline of Regent Street, one of Britain's first examples of town planning.

But Yentob's eye is distracted by the food wagon. "I only saw my first one of these a week ago," he says. "'Experience eating at the BBC!' And yes, get fat." He settles, however, for a cup of black tea.

It could be seen as a sign of a new puritanism at the BBC, chastened by the scandals that have brought down Director-General George Entwistle, and reflecting the austerity that comes with widespread budget cuts. Yentob is even commuting to his new workplace on a fold-up Brompton bicycle.

More than any other BBC executive, he is the enduring face of the organisation, far more recognisable than Tony Hall, the Royal Opera House chief, who will take over at the BBC in March.

As presenter and executive producer of the Imagine arts strand, he is seen hanging out with Gilbert & George, Grayson Perry, Anish Kapoor and Jay-Z. He networks intensively and "Yum Yum" Yentob's lunch-expense claims – which are now published – are pored over by the press with a vigour that would shame the National Audit Office. After 44 years at the BBC he is said to have acquired an enormous pension pot and his lifestyle provokes much jealousy. He is "immensely privileged", he admits.

Strange as it may seem, when the BBC is in crisis it has learnt to turn to Yentob. He has become a voice of calm and a symbol of the BBC's lasting contribution to British culture. When Newsnight was in meltdown over its Lord McAlpine broadcast, the BBC fielded Yentob to represent it on the programme.

His experience as a former controller of both BBC1 and BBC2 means he is well placed to defend the licence fee. "I think that maybe for a day we should take away all the BBC's services that people ever complain about," he says.

"You would walk into the family home and the grandmother would be screaming because The Archers wasn't on. The younger man would be complaining because Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear had disappeared. EastEnders wouldn't be there for people and the iPlayer would have gone. That's £145 a year, per household!"

But Yentob can barely contain his ebullience in the wake of the appointment of his old friend as the new DG.

As Yentob sips his black tea he talks of the BBC having "hopefully gone through the eye of the storm" and you sense he would rather be cracking open the champagne. Yentob is 65 but he has no intention of slowing up.

During Mr Entwistle's short tenure, Yentob was removed from the senior-management team when the 25-strong BBC direction group was cut to a team of 12. With Mr Hall in charge he expects to be back. "That was a structure that George felt was the right structure – it was fine by me but I think Tony will be looking at that again and I do expect to be spending more time helping him," he says.

He doesn't think the DG job itself should be redefined. "Can he be editor-in-chief? He certainly can and he must be. And he will be."

But come on, Alan, the BBC is not really "through the eye of the storm", not with the Nick Pollard and Dame Janet Smith reviews into the organisation's handling of the Jimmy Savile inquiry still ongoing. Yentob joked with the DG-in-waiting that "it can all go downhill from here". And he acknowledges now that the BBC faces "challenges ahead". "In a way, this aberration has been both a lesson and a distraction," he says. "But people who work in the BBC love the BBC, they really do – they may not love their bosses but they love the BBC. And they've felt this has been a hurtful period for them."

The Savile scandal, he says, is also an issue for many other organisations, from Stoke Mandeville Hospital to the police. "We were shocked and alarmed and I'm sure at the end of that report we will find that there may have been some people who knew about it in the BBC – I doubt that that many did myself – but at the same time this man was clearly a psychopath and managed to deceive a great many people."

As for allegations of a wider culture of abuse at the BBC, where Yentob has been since he pitched up as a trainee in 1968, the creative director points to a "raucous atmosphere" across the music and entertainment industries in the Sixties and Seventies. "You could go to a pop concert or into a television studio and be 15 years old – you didn't need to have ID in those days and people could lie about their age. We need to address criminal acts but not start being censorious about the culture of those times when actually we should be trying to improve the culture of today."

As inquisitors go, Yentob is no John Humphrys. He is happier extending a hand of support to friends such as Salman Rushdie and the broadcaster Peter Fincham (whom he assisted through the earlier BBC crisis over misrepresented footage of the Queen). He rejects the narrative that says the BBC is at war with Sky and ITV, referring to an "ecology of British broadcasting".

Wouldn't he have liked to be DG himself? "No, I don't think it was right for me at this point. I think it was absolutely right for Tony. I'm so pleased, I can't pretend that I'm not, that he's coming, and I have promised that I am going to be there for him."

He descends into Broadcasting House reception area and, for the first time in 90 minutes, appears perturbed. He is meeting Tony Hall and he mustn't be late! Alan Yentob pushes through the revolving doors and breaks into a run across the new piazza. Fortunately, along with his dark suit, the BBC creative director is wearing a pair of training shoes.