'I'm still in control here'

If Lorraine Heggessey is shaken by news that her stewardship of BBC1 is under scrutiny, it doesn't show. The controller wants her channel to have a strong identity, she tells Ian Burrell. So, no, she's not resigning
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The Independent Online

I have barely signed in at Television Centre - with the intention of asking Lorraine Heggessey if she's planning to stay in her job as controller of Britain's biggest television channel - when I see a determined Greg Dyke strutting towards me, dragging a camera crew behind him.

Blimey, I thought, she's calling out the big guns. After a week in which the news emerged of an inquiry into the BBC1 controller's programming record, Heggessey is in need of all the support she can get.

It turns out that the former director general (who famously championed Heggessey) is at the BBC on behalf of Channel 4, for whom he is making a documentary on the Hutton inquiry.

On the sixth floor, where Heggessey shares offices with the other BBC channel heads, another camera crew is lying in wait. This one is headed by the BBC presenter Adrian Chiles, who is making a film about Heggessey's working day to show to the broadcasting industry at the Edinburgh International Television Festival next month. Everyone, it seems, is monitoring Heggessey.

After four years in charge of the BBC's flagship channel, last week threw up perhaps her greatest challenge. The corporation's annual report revealed that a study had been ordered to "assess whether or not the channel has the best balance of output in peak time".

In her office, she says that the review of BBC1 - which some people see as a criticism of Heggessey's tenure - was ordered six months ago. "The review was initiated by [the former chairman] Gavyn Davies and the board of governors, so I knew there was going to be a review of BBC1. It got somewhat stalled by the events earlier this year. It wasn't a surprise. And I think it's right. BBC1 is the service the BBC spends most of the licence-fee payers' money on, and we should be held up for scrutiny."

There is "nothing sinister" about the review, she says; other BBC channels will be subjected to a similar process. "Overall, the report was incredibly positive about BBC1 and what we've achieved, but my background is being a journalist and I know good news doesn't make good headlines."

Heggessey, 47, is a more complex character than she is often presented as. There is, on the one hand, the woman who "dumbed down" BBC1 by moving Panorama out of peak time and pushing the news back to 10pm, putting on an extra weekly episode of EastEnders and extending popular dramas such as Holby City and Casualty; the woman with the pink handbag and butterfly-decorated jacket who lists her recreations in Who's Who as "skiing, tennis, gym, my children, having fun and laughing".

Then there is the razor-sharp, articulate literature graduate of Durham University, who was an executive producer of BBC science programming, such as QED and a producer on Panorama, and is now a determined television chief holding the purse strings of an £812m annual budget.

Far from intending to stand down, she reiterates her desire to become the longest-serving controller on BBC1. She has Sir Paul Fox's record six-and-a-half-year stint in her sights. That would take her to 2007.

Her plan is to make BBC1 "the channel with the most variety and broadest range in Britain". The original strategy had been to use the extra episode of EastEnders and the popular dramas like Casualty as "launch pads" for introducing big audiences to new and original programmes, especially comedies, that would be screened immediately afterwards. "If you put My Family directly after Top of the Pops, which has a much smaller audience, it would have been more difficult for that comedy to grow strong," Heggessey says.

Some programmes on BBC1 are "about how you make a difference in society," she adds, citing the award-winning investigation into police racism, Secret Policeman, and this month's Secret Agent exposé of the British National Party. "The way our police force behaves, and whether we're being lied to by a political party, are things BBC1 ought to be highlighting - and it needs a channel like BBC1, with its good funding basis, to support that type of investigative journalism, because it's real trial and error."

Heggessey has an undercover investigation into maltreatment of children in nurseries and a Panorama probe into the International Olympic Committee in the pipeline. And she has a track record on this kind of journalism, because she is a journalist first and foremost. She joined the BBC as a news trainee at the age of 23 and spent the next 15 years working on current-affairs programmes.

One assignment 20 years ago (during a stint on ITV's This Week) took her to Zaire, where Heggessey, the reporter Julian Manyon and their crew were arrested by government troops as they tried to highlight the spread of HIV in the central African state. "On one evening I was on my own in this room, and I knew what the rate of HIV infection was. I thought that if there's one thing that's worse than getting raped, it would be getting raped by someone with HIV," she remembers.

She returned to Africa last year to visit Comic Relief-supported projects. In what she describes as a "life-changing experience", she met parents with HIV who were compiling "memory books" for their young children before they died.

Heggessey plans a big season on Africa next summer, which she hopes will "give a much more rounded picture of Africa than we are normally able to give; to say that there's much more to Africa than famine, HIV and war". BBC1 will broadcast from Africa for a week in the run-up to the G8 economic summit. Sir Bob Geldof will do a six-part series from Africa to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Live Aid concert, and the hospital documentary show Trauma will be presented from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Although in public she reacts to criticisms either with an unconcerned breeziness or with fighting words, she is hurt at times by charges that she is chasing ratings and muddling the identity of the nation's favourite channel. "It's sometimes difficult not to take it personally. I feel I've always put out the message that BBC1 was about more than ratings, but people like to see you in a narrow way."

But she stresses that she does not feel vulnerable. Mark Thompson, the new director general, had appointed her to BBC1 before he left for Channel 4. "I miss Greg [Dyke], but... I think Mark is a real action-man: he has come here and rolled his sleeves up, and he's going to get on and make a difference."

Thompson wrote a public letter in Heggessey's support last week, and she feels her job is safe. "Nobody whatsoever - to my knowledge - was or is asking questions about my future. That just isn't on the agenda," she says, noting that Thompson had taken her out for a drink on the evening that the annual report was released, to give her a vote of confidence.

"Obviously I'm sure there are things he would like to see improved on BBC1, but he absolutely, categorically said he wanted me to stay in the job. I was so thrilled he wrote that letter."

Nevertheless, next year the independent review into BBC1 will be finished. As she leaves her office to embrace a waiting Dale Winton, Heggessey probably knows that that report may decide her future.