Heart surgery forces Lord Patten to step down as chairman of the BBC Trust

  • @iburrell

Lord Patten has resigned as chairman of the BBC Trust after undergoing major heart surgery.

The former Governor of Hong Kong, who has had previous heart operations, was admitted to Chelsea & Westminster Hospital in London at the end of last month suffering from chest pains. He was transferred to the Royal Brompton Hospital where he underwent bypass surgery and angioplasty.

He issued a statement today saying he had tendered his resignation to the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid with immediate effect.

Lord Patten said it had been a “privilege” to serve as Trust chairman. “Like the NHS, the BBC is a huge national asset which is part of the everyday fabric of our lives. It is not perfect – what institution is? It always needs to challenge itself to improve. But it is a precious and wonderful thing, a hugely positive influence which benefits greatly from the creativity and dedication of its staff.”

Lord Patten’s departure comes at a critical moment for the BBC as it prepares to make its case for a favourable licence fee settlement when its Royal Charter is renewed at the end of 2016. The freezing of the fee at the last settlement in 2010 meant that the BC had to find £670 million in savings and make 2,000 job cuts.

In a heartfelt message in his resignation statement, the former Conservative Party chairman appealed to politicians of all colours to recognise the broadcaster’s role in Britain’s cultural life. “I have had no reason to doubt that the leaders of all main political parties support the role it plays at the centre of our public realm. Most important of all, the British public enormously value the strength of its output, its independence and the contribution it makes every day to the quality of our lives.”

He indicated that he would have more to say on the subject closer to the time of Charter Renewal.

Lord Patten, who said his surgical procedures had been successful, had already said last summer that he would not be seeking to continue as Trust chairman when his term finishes in 2015. The BBC Trust vice-chairman Diane Coyle, a former Treasury advisor and the wife of BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, will take over as acting chairman.

Lord Patten’s tenure as Trust chairman has coincided with turbulent times at the BBC and he has admitted that the broadcaster suffered some of its “darkest days” while he was head of its governing body. The organisation’s crisis over its handling of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals led to calls for him to resign.

In the event, the BBC’s new director general George Entwistle, who had been championed by Lord Patten, stepped down after only 54 days in post while the experienced politician held onto his post. Lord Patten then led the process by which Lord Hall, the popular chief executive of the Royal Opera House, was brought back to the BBC to restore morale. Lord Patten today praised Lord Hall for having made “an outstanding start” and having assembled “an excellent team to help him”.

In one of his most outspoken moments as BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten criticised the broadcaster’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames in 2012, saying it “wasn’t the BBC’s finest hour”.

He also fell out with the former director general Mark Thompson last year during the uproar over £25 million payments made by the BBC to 150 departing executives. Patten’s organisation claimed it had not been properly informed by the BBC management over settlements which were described by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, as “on another planet”.

Thompson accused Patten and his BBC Trust colleague Anthony Fry of “specific untruths and inaccuracies” in their claims to the committee. In return, the Trust described Thompson’s analysis in his witness statement as “bizarre”.

The runners and riders for BBC Trust post

Diane Coyle

Long-standing vice-chairman and wife of BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, Coyle was formerly the Economics Editor of The Independent and an advisor to the Treasury.

Patricia Hodgson

Chairman of Ofcom, she is a distinguished figure in the broadcast industry and had a long career at the BBC in which she held numerous senior roles including Director of Policy.

Marjorie Scardino

Former CEO of Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times, she became the first woman to run a FTSE-100 company.

Howard Stringer

One of the most successful media executives to have emerged from the UK, Stringer was the first non-Japanese to run the Sony Corp before standing down last year.

Richard Lambert

The former editor of the Financial Times, he is a former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry and has previously produced a report for the Government on the BBC rolling news channel.

Michael Grade

One of the most recognisable figures in British broadcasting, he chaired the BBC between 2004 and 2006.