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Robinson takes chair at BSkyB

BSkyB yesterday surprised the City by handing its chairmanship to Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada, a company widely thought to be planning an eventual sale of its £490m holding in the satellite broadcaster.

Mr Robinson is stepping into the job vacated by Frank Barlow, managing director of Pearson, another big BSkyB shareholder. But a BSkyB spokesman denied there was any hidden row behind the reshuffle at the top of a company known for board tensions.

Mr Barlow's replacement as Pearson' nominee on the board is Greg Dyke, the former LWT chief executive brought in to look after Pearson's TV interests.

According to Pearson, it was natural for Mr Dyke to look after the company's big TV investment as well, and the company dismissed suggestions there were any other motives. "Frank has quite enough to do without burdens he does not need," said a Pearson source. Since Mr Dyke was going on to the board Mr Barlow had to give up his own directorship.

But the BSkyB board apparently took the view that Mr Dyke was too fresh a face to step straight into the chairmanship and it settled instead on Mr Robinson, already a non-executive director.

The alternatives among the four leading shareholders would have been representatives of Rupert Murdoch's News International, or Chargeurs, the French shareholder.

But any increase in Mr Murdoch's influence so soon after the flotation last December was regarded as sending the wrong signals now it is a stock market quoted company and not just a Murdoch-dominated vehicle. The French company, meanwhile, has had a stormy relationship with some of the other shareholders and was unlikely to be asked to hold the ring through the chairmanship.

Granada has described the 10.8 per cent of BSkyB as an investment and is known in the City to regard it as an easily disposable stake, available to be realised in the medium term if the group needs the cash. However, Granada decided against disposing of its shareholding at the time of the flotation and there is no indication that it plans a sale soon. It has no shortage of funds at pesent and is cash-generating. It is not thought to have any large takeover target in its immediate sights, though if an opportunity came up to buy something substantial a sale of the BSkyB stake is the most likely way it would raise money.

A complex shareholders' agreement precludes Granada from selling the stake until the summer. From then onwards there are regular windows of opportunity to sell, alternating with other large shareholders.

A BSkyB source said one of the factors in the decision was Mr Robinson's good personal rapport with Sam Chisholm, the BSkyB chief executive.

The BSkyB price has been buoyant since the flotation at 256p and closed more than 5p higher at 263.5p yesterday. Granada shares fell 4p to 497p.

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